According to the U.S. government, three-quarters of American men and nearly two-thirds of American women are overweight–or worse, obese. That’s the determination of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which sets the standard for “normal weight.” Therefore, most of us in this country are at risk of dying early because of our body mass index, right? No, wrong!
The biggest study ever undertaken to examine the link between body mass and mortality found that not only do the overweight live longer than so-called “normal weight” people, but there is also speculation that the extra pounds may provide protection against disease. Some excess fat may give us extra energy to fight off illness and to recover from injuries.
The current analysis of data, just published this week by The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), involved nearly three million subjects from 12 countries. The results show that those considered overweight, as well as those who are slightly obese, are less likely to die prematurely than those of normal weight (as defined by the government). Professor Paul Campos points out the significance of the new research:
“This means that average-height women — 5 feet 4 inches — who weigh between 108 and 145 pounds have a higher mortality risk than average-height women who weigh between 146 and 203 pounds. For average-height men — 5 feet 10 inches — those who weigh between 129 and 174 pounds have a higher mortality risk than those who weigh between 175 and 243 pounds.
“If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.”
Dr. Katherine Flegal, a CDC epidemiologist, undertook the study because public health officials were so unwilling to believe the results of earlier studies that reached the same conclusion. She said:
“There is already a lot of literature showing that overweight is linked with lower mortality. 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.”
It’s useful to consider who benefits from maintaining the current hysteria over fat; generating fear by insisting that our society suffers from an “obesity epidemic.” The list of culprits is a familiar one, from drug companies, to the multi-billion dollar diet industry, to the media–who only have to put “diet” or “weight loss” in their headlines (as I so cleverly did) in order to reap big profits (as I haven’t so cleverly done)–to physicians who work hand-in-glove with pharmaceutical companies and politicians who pocket their oh-so-generous donations.
Those who don’t benefit are pretty much the rest of us: those who are shamed into hating our bodies and coerced into excessive behaviors in order to fight what is often a losing–and expensive–battle with nature. It’s clear that we need to embrace a new standard.
Rather than emulating models and other public figures who look forcibly starved, we might turn to the examples set by other cultures. According to the British paper, The Independent:
“Samoans, Puerto Ricans and Tanzanians still celebrate largeness and six out of 10 black South Africans are clinically obese. Even in Western societies, there are differences. In a survey by Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, white women were found to worry about their weight when their BMI hit 25, black women when it nudged 30.”
In 1912, America’s ‘Perfect Woman’ was picked from a pool of 400 coeds at Cornell University and featured in the New York Times. She was Elsie Scheel who, at 171 pounds and 5 feet 7 inches tall, ate whatever she wanted–especially beefsteaks. Over the course of a hundred years, we’ve strayed far from our standard of perfection. Now the question is: how do we find our way back?