Being overweight can extend life rather than shorten it, according to a major new study that runs counter to widespread medical assumptions and years of warnings about the fatal implications of Britain’s expanding waistlines.
It sounds too good to be true, coming at the end of the season of excess, but after one of the largest reviews of research ever conducted, doctors say that carrying a few extra pounds may actually reduce the risk of premature death. Experts have repeatedly warned that obesity would soon exact a greater toll than smoking and the current generation could be the first to die before their parents.
Only yesterday, the Royal College of Physicians called for more to be done to tackle the UK’s obesity epidemic, criticising the NHS’s “patchy” services and inadequate leadership on the issue. However, the new study shows that people who are modestly overweight have a 6 per cent lower rate of premature death from all causes than people of ideal, “healthy” weight, while even those who are mildly obese have no increased risk. Overweight is defined as a body mass index above 25 but below 30. For a man of 5ft 9in, that is between 12 stone 4lb and 14 stone 6lb, or for a woman of 5ft 6in, it is between 11 stone 3 lb and 13 stone 4lb. Ideal, healthy weight is defined as a BMI between 18.5 and 25.
Mild obesity (those with a BMI between 30 and 34.9) brings a 5 per cent lower premature death rate, according to the study. Although this was not statistically significant, it suggests there is no increased risk of premature death attached to that weight range.
The news will seem heaven sent to those contemplating a new year diet, and contradicts the received wisdom that being fat reduces life expectancy. It is the second time that research studies led by Katherine Flegal, a distinguished epidemiologist from the National Centre for Health Statistics at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Maryland, US, have studied the link between obesity and mortality.
In 2007 the same group caused consternation among public health professionals when they published the results of a similar analysis that also showed being fat does not shorten life. Walter Willett, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, dismissed the finding as “rubbish”.
Dr Flegal told The Independent she had decided to conduct a second, larger, study on the same theme to counter the sceptics. She and her team examined results from 100 studies from around the world, involving three million people and 270,000 deaths.
The results are published in the respected Journal of the American Medical Association, which also published the earlier study. They show only the severely obese, with a body mass index above 35, have a significantly increased mortality, up by 29 per cent. Otherwise, extra weight appears to be protective. Underweight people, meanwhile, have a 10 per cent higher rate of premature death than those of normal size, according to earlier research. “There is already a lot of literature showing that overweight is linked with lower mortality,” said Dr Flegal. “It is not an unusual finding. But authors tend to shy away from it. They tend to underplay it or try to explain it away.”
That’s really funny. I wonder what will happen to gym membership participation if the public every finds out about this?
PS: The NY Times has an article about this too.