The Risk of Excess Weight May be Overestimated
Who do you think lives longer: people with “normal” weight or those whose weight falls in the “overweight” category? The answer may surprise you. Research has shown that those in the overweight category actually live longer!
The popular belief is that being even slightly overweight will cause serious health problems and shorten the lifespan. However, this belief needs to be considered more closely because it is not the whole truth. Overweight and obese individuals do tend to experience more health issues, but it is unclear how much of that is due to the actual weight versus the effects of weight-related stigma and discrimination.
Research, BMI, and Misconceptions about Weight
Doctors and researchers often use Body Mass Index (BMI) as a way to categorize people in terms of their weight. This system groups people into categories of underweight, normal, overweight and obese based on an analysis of weight and height. BMI= weight in kilograms/height in meters squared
While BMI can be a useful tool for assessing health, it should not be the only tool. BMI does not paint a full picture; it does not account for fitness, body mass distribution, or nutrition. Individuals at either extreme of the BMI spectrum are at an increased risk for various health problems and death, but overall BMI only weakly predicts longevity. If you want to calculate your own BMI, you can use an online BMI calculator that uses inches and pounds. The three large studies described below show that, at least for people in the overweight group, there is some reassuring news:
- In a large study of U.S. population (NHANES), the overweight group had fewer deaths than the underweight, normal weight, and obese groups (Flegal et al, 2005).
- Research evidence from a review of 26 studies involving 350,000 individuals, shows that overweight individuals have greater longevity than people at a “normal” weight (McGee, 2005).
- A study reviewing data from 1.46 million white adults, showed a J-shape relationship between BMI and all cause mortality. Individuals with BMI in the normal range had the lowest risk, those in overweight category had 13% elevation of risk. Those with morbid obesity had a 2.5 times higher risk of death (Berrigton de Gonzalez, et al, 2011).
Weight and BMI are just one of many important health indicators. Cardiovascular fitness, and healthy lifestyle factors such as not smoking, good sleep, and a balanced diet are essential for health as well.
Relaxing About Weight and Re-Focusing on Health
Much research documents that weight, once gained, is difficult to lose (Kraschnewski et al., 2010). So instead of stressing about how to lose weight, it may be better to focus on how to be happy and healthy. This is more challenging than it sounds because our society has profoundly confused “thin” with “healthy”. However, as you develop and maintain a healthier lifestyle, how you feel both physically and mentally will improve. This can be motivation to keep up the good work.
What all of the research described above means is that people who are in the overweight group (BMI 25-29.9) can really relax. Worrying about weight may cause more harm than the weight itself, and anyone who tells you otherwise may want to look up the research studies listed above. It is quite possible to be overweight and healthy!
Those in the obese category (BMI 30-34.9) can protect their health by worrying less about the number on the scale, and instead focusing on developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Some areas that you may want to address are: healthy sleep, nourishing diet, exercise, stress reduction, not smoking, and addressing other individual health concerns.
The same applies to people with BMIs greater than 35 – developing health goals and a healthy lifestyle will do more good than stressing about weight. Cultivate a compassionate and loving attitude towards yourself – focus on your positive goals, and give yourself affirmations and positive reinforcement for moving closer to your goals.
Stressing about weight can lead to restricting and binge eating, avoiding physical activity, and various other maladaptive coping mechanisms. Stressing other people about their weight, especially women and children, can definitely do more harm than good. Women and children are especially vulnerable to the negative consequences of weight stigma in our society. Since the stigma of fat is so pervasive, that we all need to be extra cautious to avoid contributing to any additional discrimination.
3 Tips to Help You Relax About Weight
- Focus on health not weight – make your own list of personal health goals focusing on sleep, diet, lifestyle, stress reduction, fitness, not smoking, and doing things that make you happy.
- Develop a compassionate attitude towards yourself and others around you dealing with weight and food concerns. It is easy to become angry or resentful towards yourself or your body, but compassion and positive reinforcement are much better motivators for positive change than punishment.
- Relax – Accept where you are and do a bit more each day to take care of yourself. When in doubt take a deep breath.
If you have experienced discrimination, or are emotionally in a difficult place with body image, I encourage you to find additional support. Organizations such as Health at any Size or Association for Size Diversity and Health can connect you with resources and a community of supportive people. Another option is to seek out a fat-friendly therapist or health care provider.
As a society we will gradually evolve to include obesity in our diversity-consciousness and non-discrimination, and hopefully eliminate the negative biases toward weight in ourselves. Science is making progress in understanding the complex causes of obesity, and the obesity rate increases have slowed down in the last ten years. For some groups of the population the obesity rate actually fell. That is good news. We know a lot more about nutrition, and are undoing some of the damage done by the misconceptions about food that drove the obesity epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. See the article about food anxiety to learn more.