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Special Issue: My Professional Reaction to New Obesity Study

February 20, 2013 (Updated: February 19, 2016)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

You might have seen the headlines about a new study showing people who are overweight live longer.  Now you may be wondering if you should bother with dieting or eating carefully. If extra weight extends life, why not whatever you want, whenever you like?

Not so fast. As a practicing physician, I see the real life consequences of being overweight every day, including conditions like heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and pre-diabetes, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, digestive disorders, and a long list of other problems. And I’ve written extensively about how extra weight damages your health. That’s why I want you to know the whole truth about the “overweight people live longer” study, because you won’t see this in the popular press.

Let’s look at the notion that people who are overweight live longer. This is misleading for several reasons.

First, the decrease in mortality was only 6%, which is a very small, almost negligible number.

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Second, as the authors note, one reason for the decrease in deaths was that overweight people go to the doctor more often, so when something goes wrong, it’s likely to be noticed by a physician. Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room!  Doesn’t anyone wonder why these individuals go to the doctor more often? Because they have serious chronic health conditions due, at least in part, to being overweight!

Third, as a number of medical experts have pointed out, unhealthy people who are thin, possibly because they’re sick with cancer or another ailment that causes weight loss, were included in the normal weight category. (This was a review of previously published work, so the authors had no say in who was included.)  Including terminally ill people who are often underweight really skews the results.

Finally, let’s not forget that the study also found a whopping 29% increase in death for people who are morbidly obese (with a BMI of 35 or more). That’s nearly 5 times the tiny decrease in death risk among the overweight.  I haven’t seen that mentioned in any of the news stories.

Bottom line: please don’t be misled by this type of research. Excess weight is not your friend, so stick with your healthy eating resolutions. None of my patients who have lost weight have ever regretted it. In fact, they are thrilled with how they look and feel!

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  • Rebecca Borchers

    We all die of old age. After all, it’s as old as we get.

  • dufas_duck

    So…you are saying that people never die of old age, that one must live forever unless they smoke or live in some unapproved life style.

    A person that makes it to 100 years and dies from a heart attack must have lived life wrong…???

  • Jack Dixon

    First problem; what is death from old age, or a natural death? Heart gives our? Happens to children. A natural death for someone who smokes heavily, does cocaine and careless sex, follows a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle will be a very different number from someone who is more sensible.

  • dufas_duck

    The stats also include 101 year old people whose hearts finally give out and then add that person to the heart attack stats…If you notice, there is no such thing as a natural death or death from old age anymore. It isn’t politically correct and doesn’t bring in funding..

    I have asked what is the correct accepted death for any person and could not get an answer from any professional or self proclaimed expert. The CDC even sent me an email suggesting that I contact some religious organization for an answer to what is really a medical question..

  • dufas_duck

    Also, by today’s thinking, Marlyn Monroe, Diane Dors, Jane Mansfield, Betty Grable etc, were fat. The medical community has been lowering the bar every so often for several years… When they finally get us to the point of eating dried grass clippings and running around in tight little circles while sipping on ionized water, what will be the next crisis???

  • Terry Hurlbut

    Add this to it: in my day, the first study to question the old Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Actuarial Tables included deaths from sudden violence, casualty, and suicide. Things to which normal-weight people might be subject, because they are out and about and sometimes have the bad sense to stray into dark alleys.

    That said: I have direct experience with meta-analysis, which is what this was. In meta-analysis, if you find that a study had an invalid sample, don’t use it! And if every study had an invalid sample, then there’s your report! You write: “No one has ever studied the relationship between body weight and longevity properly, because they included the underweight (including the cachectic), and made no attempt to distinguish violent from non-violent deaths!”

    So I find this study sloppy on several counts.

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