We are frequently reminded that Americans are getting fatter and fatter. How many times have you seen television footage of headless people walking down the street with the camera focused on their excessive abdomens, thighs and buttocks? The surgeon general believes obesity is a greater threat than terrorism. Public health advocates want the government to put warning labels on soda and tax fast food and snack foods.
Are these things true and/or necessary? Is there another perspective to all this catastrophizing?
Since about 1999, linked to the headless people footage has been the statistic that obesity kills at least 300,000 people each year. The research this statistic came from showed that poor diet and lack of physical activity accounted for 300,000 deaths per year. ‘Poor diet and lack of physical activity’ was reinterpreted by the media and the government and, since then, 300,000 people die of ‘obesity’ each year.
Even though this reinterpretation has been challenged on countless occasions, the “killer disease” statistic is still frequently cited by the media and apparently supported by our surgeon general.
In 2005, there was a front page article in the New York Times titled “Some extra pounds may be helpful, new study says.” I don’t recall that this study by the Centers for Disease Control (government) got much media attention, but it did reveal some interesting results. This CDC study showed that obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) above 30, was associated with about 112,000 deaths, a significantly lower number than the earlier reinterpretation of 300,000.
Of greater interest was the observation that being overweight, defined as a BMI between 25 and 29, was associated with about 87,000 fewer deaths compared to having a BMI in the normal range of 18.5 to 24.9. What this CDC study showed was that being overweight based on current BMI standards, may actually be better in terms of longevity than being in the normal BMI range!
This suggested benefit of being overweight made up for a great deal of the deaths associated with a BMI over 30. When you do the math, the combined total deaths attributed to having a BMI over 25 was a mere 25,000 (112,000 – 87,000). That’s a far cry from 300,000, but that shouldn’t be surprising when data are manipulated to cause alarm or create a hot story.
So does this mean we shouldn’t be concerned about our weight, what we eat or our BMI? No, it means we need to be aware of the quality of our daily nutrition and of what kind of physical activity we get. Being thin is no guarantee that a person eats well, exercises or is safe from diabetes, heart disease, cancer or other health problems. Just the same, being overweight is not a direct indication that a person eats poorly, doesn’t exercise or is destined for major health problems.
Obesity isn’t a “killer disease.” How we take care of our physical and emotional health, regardless of our weight, will have much more to do with how long and how well we live.