As the New Year starts and many of us struggle with weight-loss resolutions, a recent study might make you wonder whether it's really worth counting calories and dragging yourself to the gym.
The study in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed nearly 100 studies of close to three million adults and found that while higher levels of obesity increased the risk of death, simply being overweight might actually decrease death risk.
In other words, a few extra pounds could be good for you.
Studies like these can be dangerously misinterpreted by the general public, in my opinion. Before you succumb to the lure of sensational headlines and dip into that carton of cookie-dough ice cream, here are some things you should consider.
First, you need an explanation of the definitions of overweight and obese that were used in the study. These are not subjective terms ("Do I look fat in these pants?") but definitions based on the Body Mass Index or BMI. A BMI of 25 to 30 is overweight and a BMI of greater than 30 is obese. A normal BMI is 18.2 to under 25.
Over all, the analysis found that there was an 18 percent higher risk of death for obesity with a massive 29 percent increased risk of death for those with a BMI above 35. So clearly, extra pounds can kill you.
But what about the potential for a reduced risk of death for those in the overweight category? The researchers have no explanation but speculate that these patients may be more likely to be getting medical treatment to prevent diseases caused by their extra pounds – such as taking statins to reduce high cholesterol.
In an accompanying editorial, other researchers speculated that a few extra pounds might actually be somewhat protective as people age by providing reserves of energy during acute illnesses. They also said that BMI should be only one measure to determine whether a person needs to lose weight.
Another measure that many doctors like to use is waist size because it indicates the presence of abdominal fat, which can be more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (the kind stored in your hips and thighs). The risk of heart disease and diabetes goes up if your waist size is higher than 35 inches for women and greater than 40 inches for men.
Good luck with those resolutions!