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Super Size Me!
April 20, 2005 11:50 AM   Subscribe

New federal study released today finds that overweight folks —not the obese, though—have a lower risk of death than those who are average weight. Some welcome these findings as the death knell for “fat hysteria.” The study also concluded that deaths related to obesity are actually a third of what has been reported by the CDC. Seems rather counterintuitive, no?
posted by Sully6 (42 comments total)

 
If you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:56 AM on April 20, 2005


I have given up on any federal studies published between 2000 and 2008.
posted by mischief at 12:04 PM on April 20, 2005


Hooray for me! I may have a hard time finding cute clothes that fit but at least I'll outlive the sorority girls!
posted by librarina at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2005


I'm with mischief on this one. The study should be repeated in a few years.
posted by davy at 12:07 PM on April 20, 2005


Was this study sponsored by McDonald's?
posted by clevershark at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2005


The US & Australia breathe a raspy, heaving sigh of relief.
posted by dhoyt at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2005


sweet, I'm the first one to point out the gaping hole in this study:

It's based on your Body Mass Index (BMI) which can be calculated here

the problem is it doesn't look at whether you'r fat or in really good shape. I'm a fairly toned skinny guy of 6'2" 195 pounds and my BMI puts me right at the overweight category. But this is from my going to the gym everynight, I barely have any fat on me and am a bit of a health freak. By not separating this out by percentage body fat you're lumping those with little fat and those with a lot of fat and making judgements about how being fat effects people.

so yeah, don't pack on that gut to live longer just quite yet
posted by slapshot57 at 12:20 PM on April 20, 2005


Well, the researchers used national surveys covering nearly three decades (1971-2002), so this wasn’t just based on a single snapshot in time. Still, I keep waiting to hear that smoking and big, juicy steaks are good for you (a la Sleeper).

I thought Salon’s article on Paul Campos was pretty interesting, although I don’t know if I buy all his arguments. I’ve since heard criticisms that his research is funded by major food industry groups. However, I couldn’t turn anything up to substantiate that.

Also, note that the researchers did not study whether being overweight adversely affects your quality of life in later years. And I believe the term “overweight” is used to describe those who are 19% or less above their ideal body weight. We’re not talking about waddlers.
posted by Sully6 at 12:22 PM on April 20, 2005


You can read the sponsorship data in the report, doesn't look corporate.

IMHO, all this study only shows that that the range of normal and healthy BMI is slightly wrong. It could be that the real range of heatlhy BMI's is something like 21-27. Whereas a very possible unhealthyness of BMI 18.5 to 21 pushed up the mortality of the normal group. (Being under 18.5 is worse them being over 35, according to this report).

As far as this meaning "being obese is ok", the report CLEARLY shows BMI's over 30 are unhealthy.
posted by jboy55 at 12:26 PM on April 20, 2005


This seems to say more about the guidelines, which also seem pretty weird to me, than about the virtues of being "fat"
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:27 PM on April 20, 2005


Fat people don't do X-treme sports. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.
posted by bardic at 12:28 PM on April 20, 2005


Has anyone ever seen a study correlating BMI vs. proper metrics like percentage of body fat, over a large population? I only ever hear anecdotal evidence about athletes that are personally misclassified.
posted by smackfu at 12:29 PM on April 20, 2005


Shit. And I just lost all that weight. Damn.
posted by Doohickie at 12:34 PM on April 20, 2005


Actually I think the "overweight folks —not the obese, though—have a lower risk of death than those who are average weight" part is quite intuitive. If you spend your whole life worried about how many calories and how many grams of cholesterol are there in everything and anything you eat, you end up overstressed and unhappy. Stress and unhappiness on the other hand will certainly kill you early than a few excess kilograms.
posted by nkyad at 12:47 PM on April 20, 2005


Maybe that's because people of "average weight" are an endangered species.
posted by crapulent at 12:49 PM on April 20, 2005


I was at work yesterday in the cafeteria, picking out something to eat. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a severely obese co-worker walk in, and I quickly averted my gaze back to the vending machine. He waddled to the vending machine next to me and stopped to catch his breath. I remember it distinctly because his voice was so hoarse and raspy, like his whole body was fighting gravity.

He stood there for half of a minute or so, and bought 3 muffins. I didn't look. All I could do was listen.

He was killing himself.
posted by Dean Keaton at 12:49 PM on April 20, 2005


I'm pretty sure the risk of death is 100%- we all do it sooner or later.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2005 [1 favorite]


Because it's quantity of life - not quality - that's truly important in the New America.
posted by ToasT at 12:56 PM on April 20, 2005


PinkSuperhero, are you saying that bleeding to death is the same as dying at old age?
posted by Dean Keaton at 12:59 PM on April 20, 2005


Yeah, I'm not reading too much into this. I'm "overweight" at 180lbs and 5'8", but most of it really is muscle. Honest.

Also, correlation isn't causality. I mean, people who are very sick often waste, for inability to eat, or grow fat, from inability to move. So the health of both extremes could be exaggerated.

I see the researchers themselves suggest "improvements in medical care, particularly for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death among the obese, and its risk factors may have led to a decreased association of obesity with total mortality."

Maybe you're less likely to die with a BMI of 30 today than 20 years ago. I doubt that you're actually *feeling* any better though.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:06 PM on April 20, 2005


Yeah, chubby people may live longer, but they get laid less.
posted by klangklangston at 1:08 PM on April 20, 2005


jboy55 writes "all this study only shows that that the range of normal and healthy BMI is slightly wrong. It could be that the real range of heatlhy BMI's is something like 21-27. Whereas a very possible unhealthyness of BMI 18.5 to 21 pushed up the mortality of the normal group."


This seems like the proper way to read this story. The BMI-centered criticism is important for fit people to take up for their doctors, but not really strong enough to invalidate the study. I don't see the US as a country teeming with Arnold look alikes, I see a population of overweight-because-of-excess-fat people. A large sample of high BMIs will have a few fit people, but mostly fat people.
posted by OmieWise at 1:25 PM on April 20, 2005


I dunno, all this stuff makes me think of fashion magazines where the January issue says "Never, ever use blue eyeliner during the day!" and the July issue says "Blue eyeliner is a must during the day!"
posted by scratch at 1:27 PM on April 20, 2005


Bah, I'm ignoring all studies regarding BMI and death risk. Being overly fat is not good. Neither is anorexia. But I am QUITE happy with my just-under-18.5 BMI thankyouverymuch (and yes, I eat, and no, I don't puke) and have no intention of putting on a few pounds to live longer. I'd have to buy new jeans, anyway - I like the ones I have.
posted by salad spork at 1:30 PM on April 20, 2005


There's also some issues with where "normal" is defined. I will be the first to admit that I am obese (and I am doing something about it, it's just hard and takes a long time). On the other hand, at my frame and body structure, my "ideal" weight off the charts seems like it would be somewhat underweight. Marylin Monroe is the goal, not Callista Flockhart.
posted by Karmakaze at 1:54 PM on April 20, 2005


The objective scientists at the Big Fat Blog are all over these findings.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2005


They discounted the influcence of non-weight risk of death factors like smoking and alcohol consumption, but didn't account for how these factors interact with BMI. Smoking, for example, both lowers your BMI and raises your risk of death, so that skews the risk of death for lower-weight people. Drinking has less effect on people with higher BMI, so that probably also skews the risk of death for lower-weight people. And they don't even account for drug use, which generally lowers BMI and, again, increases risk of death. As does sickness, for that matter. This study is full of holes.
posted by scottreynen at 2:42 PM on April 20, 2005


Fat is overrated. Just as it's currently all about low-carb diets, government and industry conspired a couple decades ago to inculcate the low-fat mantra. Yeah, being morbidly obese is probably not the ideal state for the body, but a little fat isn't going to hurt anyone, in fact, fat is good. We get so much "information" from so-called studies but all the scientific data in the world won't ever replace good ol' common sense. Cook your own meals with a variety of foods and you'll be fine. And don't forget to exercise, which might simply mean walking to and from work every day. You don't have to be at the gym 5 nights a week, 3 hours at a time. There's another thing called moderation and balance. We're so out of touch.
posted by yedgar at 2:58 PM on April 20, 2005


No link in my pocket (just happy to see you), but I was doing the honours psych program at the same time as a friend of mine was doing the honours genetics program (and I was into social psych theory)... so as you can imagine we had some fascinating debates across those four years.

One bit of research he was into I have to admit I doubted because if it were valid and reproducible I would have expected it to make a bit of a flap. In actuality, I have only started seeing this being reported lately. The gist was that lab animals -- rats, mostly -- who were underfed lived longer.

Grossly underfed and much longer. He was talking about a 30% reduction in calories from what was considered appropriate caloric intake. Now, I expected a flap exactly because of the "fat hysteria" counter-movement, but the result I actually thought was rather intuitive. From grade school on I think we all notice that those who are overweight develop more quickly, and even those with mesomorphic -- muscular builds -- look far older these days when I see them than those of us who were very thin and still remain strangely "preserved".

Anyway, take it however you will. I'm sure that this recent study may involve a lot of variables that may not at first be apparent. For now, I am satisfied that (all other things remaining constant) body mass is a killer.

Oh, and what yedgar said. Except I'll throw in that a *little* fat is good.
posted by dreamsign at 3:07 PM on April 20, 2005


PinkSuperhero, are you saying that bleeding to death is the same as dying at old age?

But did the study say 'risk of death by heart attack' or simply 'risk of death'?
posted by bingo at 3:10 PM on April 20, 2005


dreamsign, I am warning you: you medical sciences people try to grossly underfed me and we will have to revisit that well-regulated militia discussion all over again.
posted by nkyad at 3:15 PM on April 20, 2005


if it were valid and reproducible I would have expected it to make a bit of a flap ... grossly underfed and much longer.

Is this what you mean? It's been widely reported, lots of people talked about it. Some believe it, some don't.

I doubt seriously the usefulness of many big studies to a given person's life. I think that people, environments, foods, and everything else in the damn world, are so varied that trying to live your life by bouncing from the results of study to study probably gets you nowhere.

Try to listen to what your own body says, read what you can, and make an informed decision based on an amalgam of what you can figure out.
posted by thethirdman at 3:19 PM on April 20, 2005


Interesting, thethirdman. I'm not sure -- it's been so long and I'm not currently in contact with him. that could be it.

As for the multiplicity of variables outside the lab, I agree, but then those insurance charts are pretty daunting, and the private sphere isn't into using tools for show. If they hadn't at least found very positive (or negative) correlations, they wouldn't care about the city in which you live, what your job is, or when your home was built.

Interesting also that that CR page you linked to, nykad (man, I love wiki), reports that caloric restriction has found to not be the critical factor, but rather lack of fatty tissue is. So really we're back to anti-fat.
posted by dreamsign at 3:45 PM on April 20, 2005


The caloric restriction studies are likely to be legitimate. Not sure if it has been pinned down exactly how this phenomenon works. The downside to caloric restriction is that the quality of life is going to be negatively impacted.

Personally I suspect it may have something (of course, I don't expect single-factor causes for a very complex issue) to do with lowered heart rate. Generally, all mammals' hearts beat about the same number of times throughout their lifespan. In general, mammals with really fast heart rates live less long than mammals with really slow heart rates.

Kinda jives well with the observations that conditioned athletes with ridiculously low heart rates tend to have much higher life expectancies.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:46 PM on April 20, 2005


scottreynen, if you RTA, you will see they break down the statistics to those who have smoked and those that have never smoked.

Again, I think this study is just showing the BMI scale, if it is to be used as a determination of risk to health, is balanced too far to the underweight. I would imagine if you used the same data for 21-27 you would find that would be the healthiest range.

It is funny that people are debating about terms "overweight" and "obese" which are defined as a BMI range indicating levels of increased risk to health. If it is determined that these ranges do not indicate risks to health, then the ranges that define them must naturally be changed.

Btw, moving the upper bounds of the healthy BMI range to 27 (or whereever it is statistically determined), isn't a by anyshot a blank check for gluttony.
posted by jboy55 at 4:25 PM on April 20, 2005


The downside to caloric restriction is that the quality of life is going to be negatively impacted.

Naw, all depends what you're used to. I have found that I can get used to a lot of very rich food and to very spartan diets, too. I'm not sure that that automatically becomes a quality of life issue. When I eat less, I generally appreciate it more, for one thing. It becomes less about quantity and more about quality.

Part of the "fat-hysteria" counter-movement, I find, is to attempt (weakly) to marginalize the healthy and the fit. One person I know recently opined that the athletically inclined must lead very boring lives. All that discipline. Never any fun.
posted by dreamsign at 5:00 PM on April 20, 2005


I'm a very fit (competitive athlete, train hard, compete nationally & just made a USA world masters team) 50ish asthmatic from a stocky family background, with a BMI of 28.3. My mother worried about her weight all her life, and so did her mother. Her mother died in her late 80s of heart failure (the breast cancer didn't kill her in her 40s) and right now my mother is in a nursing home with Parkinson's, wheelchair-bound, busy forgetting how to use a remote control, a phone, and a fork. But she still worries about her weight and refuses to eat ice cream, and she's probably going to live as long as her mother did because Parkinson's doesn't necessarily affect your life length, just your quality of life.

You know what? All these people obsessing about their weight need to get a grip and get on with their lives. It ain't about weight, and it ain't about food.
posted by Peach at 5:55 PM on April 20, 2005


ToasT : Because it's quantity of life - not quality - that's truly important in the New America.

That needed to be said again, because it is the stone-cold truth.
posted by Kloryne at 6:46 PM on April 20, 2005


An interesting take on the reduced-calories-for-mice study, and why it may not apply to humans, in Harvard Magazine.

Demetrius believes he has the answer, one that suggests human beings will respond differently to caloric restriction than rats and mice do. A mathematical biologist, Demetrius argues analytically that the rate of aging is determined not by metabolic rate but by metabolic stability, which is a measure of a cell's ability to maintain stable ratios of certain critical cellular metabolites in the face of stress. ... Caloric restriction increases metabolic stability. An organism's metabolic stability, he argues, is determined by its evolutionary history, so researchers can predict what the metabolic stability of a species will be if its history is known — and hence predict just how much CR might extend its life.

Mice and rats, for example, are "opportunistic species," says Demetrius. They experience periods of relative food abundance punctuated by prolonged periods of scarcity, and therefore undergo episodes of rapid, exponential population growth followed by periods of decline. Such species are characterized by early sexual maturity, a narrow reproductive span, and large litter size, all traits reflecting a survival strategy for coping with feast-or-famine circumstances. Humans, on the other hand, are what Demetrius calls an "equilibrium species." "Evolution has tended to modify our life history so that we mature late sexually, have fewer offspring, and spread our reproductive activity over a long period," he explains. Experiments have shown that human cells are much more resistant to the effects of stressors than the cells of rodents are: they are inherently more stable, more able to resist random perturbations of cellular homeostasis.

...The bad news (or perhaps good news, depending on your fondness for food) is that our already high metabolic stability means caloric restriction will not lead to dramatic life extension, as it does for mice. Demetrius predicts a one- to five-year gain in human life span at most, largely attributable to reductions in rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Mice, with their low metabolic stability, have "lots of room for improvement."

posted by occhiblu at 8:46 AM on April 21, 2005


The downside to caloric restriction is that the quality of life is going to be negatively impacted.

Naw, all depends what you're used to.


Sorry, I should have qualified that with chronic caloric restriction. iirc the caloric restricted mice had a lot less sex, where slower, &c. and the restricted nematodes (which benefited even more than the mice), too.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:10 AM on April 21, 2005


I'm convinced that studies like this should hire a team of high-school and undergraduate age "sharpshooters', to look at the entire study and nit-pick it to death. As disinterested parties designed to find fault, they would improve the quality of research by 1000%. "Tell us what we are doing wrong" -- the teenagers' dream.

Their review should be hidden from the researchers until the research is done, then given to whoever is conducting the peer review. If the peer reviewer is satisfied with both their research and its "intelligent but not expert critique", then the research has far more credibility.

The point being that the researchers would have to justify the exclusion of variables. "Oh, this is a study about obesity and mortality, not smoking and mortality!", just wouldn't cut it. Granted, most of what they criticized really isn't going to show fundamental flaws, but I believe they would come up with a slew of legitimate complaints about how research is routinely conducted. This would force a serious re-examination as to practices, procedures and assumptions.

The value of doing this was even known to Napoleon, who kept a severely retarded man, an "idiot", on his staff to review all commands issued from his headquarters before they were sent. If, and only if, "Napoleon's Idiot" understood them and could explain them, would the orders then be sent to his brilliant field commanders. This avoided many serious errors on the battlefield.

As it is, we can discuss all sorts of problems that their experiment *might* have had, but none of them are documented, self-examined by the researchers, or could radically change the conclusions.
posted by kablam at 10:59 AM on April 21, 2005


Interesting, occhiblu!

And here I'd been thinking both that humans are about as opportunistic as it gets, and that resistance to stress must be a good thing. 2 new things today!
posted by dreamsign at 9:48 PM on April 21, 2005


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