by Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS
There’s been a lot of media hype about a study showing that people who are overweight or mildly obese have lower mortality rates than people of a normal weight. The news is based on a research article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
I learn about reports like this the minute they hit newsstands because my patients ask me, “Dr. Baechler, did you see? It says that it’s good to be fat.” Articles like this get a lot of attention because: 1) the research results are contrary to a lot of other evidence, and 2) it’s hard to lose weight, and news like this gives us an excuse to gain weight.
Let me take this opportunity to debunk the hype and say: It’s not advantageous to be overweight or obese. The JAMA study looked at associations between being overweight and dying. It did not examine associations between being overweight and getting ill.
Many studies show that we in the U.S. live longer than residents of other countries. This has nothing to do with our weight. We live longer because of all the medical technology available to us (stents, dialysis, transplants, respirators, etc.). While we can postpone death, we still may be quite sick with chronic disease in the meantime.
In fact, we are much sicker today than we used to be, and many people with chronic diseases start out being overweight or obese. Then, as they get more sick, they lose weight. For instance, the average person that gets heart disease is overweight. However if their heart disease progresses to heart failure, they often lose weight as the disease progresses and they near death.
So, when we think about associations like this study does from afar, it looks like being slightly overweight or mildly obese is associated with lower mortality rates. However, that is deceptive because the association is made at one snapshot in time ― right before people die ― when most chronic disease have progressed and people happen to be less overweight.
The other point that this study did not take into account is that people who have anorexia, smoke or abuse alcohol tend to be less overweight and obese, however they are still not “healthy.”
Let me be clear: There is no advantage to being overweight or obese, and those conditions pose severe risks to your health. As is stated by the World Health Organization, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death, just after smoking.
The lesson: Anytime you hear health related news reports that defy common sense, you’re most often not hearing the whole truth.
Learn more about healthy weight loss.
Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS