From a very young age, we’re now taught that being overweight in unhealthy and being thin is healthy.
The media and press bombard us with messages that being overweight causes chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.
But what if we’ve got it all wrong?
Just over a decade ago, health researchers began noticing some patients were able to fare better than other with conditions like heart disease. However, instead of being pleased that they may have discovered some encouraging news for future treatments, they were instead left baffled, as the common factor that was protecting them was fat.
The overweight/mildly obese patients were the ones who surviving longer.
Glenn Gaesser, director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University, states;
“When health-care professionals get their first nutrition books, there’s a chapter on obesity, and it generally says that fat people are unhealthy and thin people are healthy.”
Many scientists were quick to try and prove this “obesity paradox” away. Carl Lavie, a cardiologist in Jefferson, Louisiana, told Quartz;
“People thought, ‘This can’t be true. There’s got to be something wrong with their data’.”
Nonetheless, the more researchers tried their best to prove the “obesity paradox” didn’t exist, the more they confirmed it.
Many scientists have now published articles documenting how being overweight ican actually help protect patients with an increasingly long list of medical problems; including pneumonia, burns, stroke, cancer, hypertension, and heart disease.
Katherine Flegal is an epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and she was the first to start the debate.
Flegal examined hundreds of mortality studies, looking particularly at those that include the patients’ Body Mass Index, or BMI (calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters).
Flegal discovered that the lowest mortality rates were in those patients with a BMI of over 25 – in the ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ categories.
She noted that although being overweight is one factor cause somebody to become more susceptible to life-threatening conditions, it is only one factor, and there are many other causes why people can develop illnesses, such as heart disease.
Thin people can get heart disease too, y’know?
In fact, Flegal noted that one people who are considered ‘severely obese’ only really are those who are likely to develop such diseases, and that, taken at face value, it appears that carrying a little extra weight is genuinely beneficial.
However, despite the fact Flegal’s study incorporated data from almost 100 studies which analysed close to 3 million people, there were those who were quick to try and prove her wrong.
Who can blame them? She is literally saying that everything we thought about weight and health is wrong.
One protester was Walter Willett, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, who is known for his high profile stance against obesity, who has labelled Flegal’s study as “rubbish”.
But no matter how hard researchers like Willett scoff the “Obesity Paradox”, nobody has yet been able to make it go away.
One theory supporting the paradox is that overweight people are medically treated more aggressive than thin people, and are therefore more likely to survive.
But many disprove this theory, saying how when a fat person goes into the doctor’s office with a problem, red flags are raised, and they are treated for being “fat” rather than the underlying medical condition. In fact, studies have proven that overweight people are far LESS LIKELY to go and see a doctor than thin people.
To prove this, a group of researchers, led by a French endocrinologist named Boris Hansel, examined data on 54,000 patients who were at risk of stroke and heart attack. Now, the ideal treatments for these patients are protective drugs like statins and beta-blockers. But the mildly obesity seemed to protect at-risk patients – whether they were taking the drugs or not. This proves the ‘fat people get better treatment’ theory is wrong.
Another theory against the paradox is that the data on people of normal weight is ‘skewed’.
People lose weight when they get older, and people who smoke also get thinner and sicker – therefore, people who are deemed to be a ‘healthy’ weight are also grouped in with the mortally ill – making the ‘normal’ weight category look less healthy than it actually is.
Once again, however, it seems this theory is far from clear, as Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University, analysed data on diabetes patients, and even after excluding all of her patients that died within 2 years of the study beginning – to filter those who were already ill and didn’t know it – she still found that thin people had the higher mortality rates.
The obesity paradox lives
So, if the paradox is real, what does it really mean to be ’healthy’? Should we even bother trying to lose weight and diet?
Well, this really depends on the true correlation between weight and fitness.
For example; exercise
Paul McAuley, a health education researcher at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, reveals how the majority of studies on weight and health fail to take exercise into account, “Or they ask one question about it”.
However, what McAuley has discovered is that your FITNESS can predict your health and lifespan much for effectively that your FATNESS.
Fat people can be fit, just like thin people can be unfit.
When all is said and done, many researchers will always fight this obesity paradox, because it goes against so much that we’ve been taught about the correlations of an individual’s weight and their health.
But people of all sizes develop heart disease, it’s just that fat people with heart disease can seemingly perform better overall than thin people with heart disease.
So perhaps the paradox isn’t in fat people miraculously defying the laws of health, maybe its society’s beliefs on what constitutes a “healthy” weight in the first place.
So, stay fit and stay healthy. But no matter what your weight, you should know exactly what goes into your favourite foods.