January 4th, 2013

Overweight good, thin bad?

Those who study and/or write about overweight and health are reeling from the news that it seems to be a wee bit healthier to be a wee bit overweight.

They’re spinning it for all they’re worth, trying to explain the results away. But the results are not isolated; many other large studies have found similar trends.

Being grossly obese is not healthy. But being thin appears to be not all that good for a person, either—at least, if you take the group as a whole.

The thing is, we are individuals, and therefore these results don’t really tell us much about our own situation. I know I tend to feel better at a slightly lower weight, and when I don’t eat tons of heavy, rich food. I also feel better when I do some exercise on a daily basis. So I try to go by that, knowing there are no guarantees of anything.

It seems to me that the biggest besetting sin of medical researchers, doctors, and diet gurus on the topic of weight is that they pretend to know much more than they do. People are so different in this regard there are no universal (and certainly no easy) answers, although we’re always searching for them.

Another thing to remember is that a lot of people have become invested in the idea that we must counter an epidemic of obesity, preferably through the mechanism of governmental intervention (they’re the same people who think the government should intervene in almost everything). But how many people are involved in this “epidemic”?:

Whatever factors explain these mortality rates, it is increasingly clear that the definition of obesity as problem, let alone an “epidemic” requiring government intervention, hinges on official standards with little basis in reality. If the share of American adults whose weight poses a life-threatening danger is closer to 6 percent (the share classified as extremely obese) than to 69 percent (the share deemed “overweight”), that makes a huge difference, whether or not you think trying to move those numbers is an appropriate function of government.

And then, of course, there’s vanity. Don’t sell vanity short. Unless we go back to some older (and more zaftig) standard of beauty, most people will want to be thinner because they think it makes them look better.

20 Responses to “Overweight good, thin bad?”

  1. Ira Says:

    The article seemed to be conflating overweight with obese.

    You are right, each person is different. As a person who went from slightly overweight to well within the range of “normal” weight, I say I feel much better now than when I was heavier. Of course, that gets us to the question, is it better to live X more years feeling good or to live X+Y years feeling bad?

  2. vanderleun Says:

    I’m going to think more about the implications of this but first I have to dash out and grab that double bacon cheeseburger I’ve been putting off.

  3. Lizzy Says:

    Well, the government likes to change the definition of “obese” to make it seem more like an “epidemic” – especially when those defining obesity will profit, both personally and through government funded programs, from the epidemic: http://www.obesitymyths.com/myth1.3.htm

  4. expat Says:

    There are certainly more truly obese people walking around today than I remember as a kid. But when I was young, there wasn’t the constant talk about nutrition and diets and weight. People who were heavier just seemed to accept it, as did their family and friends. Today, you have to add in the stress factor that comes with not meeting society’s moral standards for a healthy lifestyle. That plus the yo-yo effect could be part of the problem. I can even remember people being called skinny.

    I kind of miss the days when you were expected to eat what mom put on your plate and, if you were good, you could walk to the local store for an ice cream bar. Of course in those days moms could cook and dinners at home around 6 were the norm.

  5. rickl Says:

    Recipe for a long life: overweight people have LOWER death risk

    I call BS. Everybody has a 100% risk of dying.

  6. rickl Says:


  7. Artfldgr Says:

    Zaftig was only popular as it was its periods expression of wealth at a time when famine was common.

    in fact, each ages expression of wealth in fashion signifies who we copy to express that quality.

    The idea of the “FAT” cat was of the TAFT era. when big and fat meant wealthy…

    once food became cheap, being thin was preferred.
    and once feminists controlled women and their magazine reading, anorexic heroine thin was more in… (so was alcohol, and cigarettes were equated with being liberated.. funny ads too showing how some woman would best the male culture by grabbing a smoke).

    oh.. and with capitalism its a constant shift of things.
    without it, fashion need not change so fast..

    the wealthy are copied
    once copied, they shift to something else.
    then are copied again

    there are very important social reasons for this

    just as we all wear costumes and dont necessarily realize it. oh. we may look and see a biker and say he is wearing a costume, but not you. but your just wearing the current costume the majority wears.

    between men and women there are lots of things that are proxies for health, wealth, fecundity, and more. Signs we use to divine whether someone is suitable to be a partner, or friend, etc.

    Don’t believe me? how many homeless have you sought out and taken home because you wanted friendship?

    you have your reasons, we all do, and what they are isnt the point. the point is that we do that, and it helps us get along socially (and sometimes helps the antisocial too who learn what to look for).

    for women
    having symmetry of features
    hip to waist RATIO (whether fat or not)
    long legs
    higher voice
    big iris in the eye
    longer neck
    lighter skin color than the male
    even skin color lacking blemishes

    are some of the more fixed things we use..
    while things like breast size or such is more fluid

    and things tied to personality, a period of health or not, and other more transitory things are also more fluid and we adapt to as we need to, like wealth indicators.

    Will Jewish mothers tell their daughters to marry a doctor post Obama? 🙂

    weight is transitory… in times of famine its a wealth or success indicator. in times of plenty, its an indicator of self control, and wealth with thin replacing fat. and there are always people who just dont follow that and like what they like as well. from men who like legs to those that like the trunk.

    and the same for women too..

    and both vary based on needs and goals and so on.

    as to the study
    the problem with being thin is that you have small reserves, and decreased protection from certain things, like falls and blows. in fact, it also increases your odds of living when shot!

    the problem with being fat is that it does lots of damage but over time causing a slow often painful decline in health with things breaking down as you go. the thin are the ones who usually have healthier terms and die faster nearer their ends. however in the real world, such activity has a price, and with less reserves, tilts the numbers in favor of fat.

    Mortality by itself is one of those exact but useless things
    kind of like the square root of your social security number

  8. Occam's Beard Says:

    God, I’m sick of hearing about things like this. If you’re a fat ~!@#$, you either a) are OK with it, or b) are not. If a) then, no problem. If b), then do something about it, you fat ~!@#$, but keep it to yourself.

  9. waltj Says:

    My sister, an ER nurse with over 30 years of experience, has said on numerous occasions that she’s treated more skinny people for medical reasons–heart attack, acute illness, stroke–than she has overweight people. Her evidence is all anecdotal, and does not control for factors like smoking or substance abuse, but it seems to back up what this latest study says. She’d agree that morbid obesity is bad, but trying to look like runway model carries its own costs.

  10. Gary Rosen Says:

    “Everybody has a 100% risk of dying.”

    Reminds me of one of my favorite jokes: a government researcher goes into a backwoods county to gather health statistics but most people are suspicious and won’t talk to him. Finally he finds an old codger who is a bit friendlier and talks him up.

    “So, do you know what the death rate is in this county?”

    “Oh, about one per person.”

  11. Gary Rosen Says:

    “does not control for factors like smoking or substance abuse”

    That could be a significant part of the answer right there. Smokers and drug abusers are often underweight.

  12. Occam's Beard Says:

    Epidemiological studies are notoriously (in the scientific community) lousy. My favorite: the one that drinking is good for you. Much as I’d like to believe that, being three sheets to the wind right now, the small but noticeable flaw in that study turned out to be that it failed to take into account that people at death’s door often don’t drink because bar service in ICUs is appallingly bad.

  13. Occam's Beard Says:

    That could be a significant part of the answer right there. Smokers and drug abusers are often underweight.

    As are those dying of AIDS or cancer. Did they control for that? I’m betting “no.”

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: supposedly, they have controlled for it:

    Do thinner people have a higher mortality rate because they are more likely to smoke or because they have lost weight due to illness? Flegal and her co-authors say the data “provide little support” for those explanations.

  15. Occam's Beard Says:

    neo, 90+ % of biomedical research is crap. See Why Most Published Research Findings Are False for substantiation of my empirical observation.

    Ironically, anyone disputing the conclusion of this paper would be validating my original proposition that biomedical research is inherently untrustworthy.

    Also, note that “little support” no support. So, a modest proposal: if this paper turns out to be inherently flawed, which I think is more likely than not, we execute the authors. I, for one, would not offer them life insurance.

  16. neo-neocon Says:

    Occam’s Beard: oh, I agree that most medical research is very poor. That’s why I wrote, “It seems to me that the biggest besetting sin of medical researchers, doctors, and diet gurus on the topic of weight is that they pretend to know much more than they do.”

    I was just pointing out that the authors of the study did think of those issues, and attempted to address them.

  17. expat Says:

    I think there are researchers who actually study things and try to figure out what happens in the body and there are data miners and numbers crunchers who look for correlations and try to sell them as facts. At best these correlations should be used as hints of possible factors influencing a phenomena. They should not be sold to a scientifically illiterate public.

  18. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I am 5’11”.
    I weigh between 210 and 220.
    For years I was 150 and everyone said I was too skinny.
    I’d feel good at 200.
    My doctor told me that would still leave me obese.
    It is to laugh.

  19. Gary Says:

    The study is silly because it’s based on the BMI (body mass index), which is junk since it’s a) heavily biased in favor of skinny, and b) simplistic because it’s based on height and weight only (ie a proxy for body fat that is only vaguely approximate).

    I’m 5’11” and weigh about 190 lbs. This gives me a BMI score of about 26.5, putting me in the “overweight” range (BMI of 25 – 30). So far so good; I could stand to lose 10-15 lbs. But if you look closely at the “normal” range (BMI of 18.5 – 25), you start to see some very strange things: to make the low end of “normal,” I would have to weigh a mere 132.5 lbs! This is not “normal” for a 5’11” man (or woman). This is approaching “concentration camp survivor.” If we go to the middle of the “normal” range (BMI of 21.75), we get a weight of 155.8 lbs for a 5’11” man. Though not nearly so extreme, this number is still quite low. Through heroic dieting and exercise, I might be able to get down to 165, but probably no lower.

    Anyway, my point is that about 65% of the “normal” category is actually skinny to quite emaciated, which is not healthy. So the study compared people who are a little overweight against the “normal” category and found that the former “have a 6 per cent lower rate of premature death from all causes.” No surprise at all: this is because their supposed ideal, the “normal” category, consists mostly of people who are too thin, many of whom are grossly underweight. The problem is that the BMI categories are stupid.

    Below is a table showing the weight range corresponding to the bottom half (BMI of 18.5 – 21.75) of the “normal” BMI category for various heights:

    5’2″ : 101.1 – 118.8 lbs
    5’4″ : 107.7 – 126.6 lbs
    5’6″ : 114.5 – 134.6 lbs
    5’8″ : 121.6 – 142.9 lbs
    5’10”: 128.8 – 151.4 lbs
    6’0″ : 136.3 – 160.2 lbs
    6’2″ : 144.0 – 169.3 lbs
    6’4″ : 151.8 – 178.5 lbs

    Does this look “normal” or “ideal” to you?

    [Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_mass_index%5D

  20. Smock Puppet, 10th Dan Snark Master and Gravitationally Distortive Object Says:

    FAD science. It’s all the rage.

    From AGW to Obesity to “Recovered Memories” — it’s about quacks, charlatans, and demagogues with an agenda.

    Wolf Howling: The Scientific Method and Its Limits – The Decline Effect
    Money Quote:

    But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.

    Also (no relation):
    Coyoteblog: Great Idea — The Reproduciblity Project

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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