Is Being Overweight Unhealthy?

Talia en Colombia 2012 147

The new year brings with it the onslaught of new year’s resolutions, the most common being, of course, to lose weight. While most people think that losing weight can help them better their health and well-being, a new study published in JAMA begs to differ.

As it turns out, the supermodel look is not healthy. (Surprise, surprise!). The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) performed a meta-analysis on the role of body fat on predicting longevity.

The study featured almost 3 million subjects and found that people who were overweight, based on a BMI of 25-30 (a body mass calculator that estimates body fat by taking into account height and weight), lived longer than those who were normal weight (BMI = 18.5-24.9) or obese (BMI = greater than 30).

There are some limitations to the study, mainly that correlation does not equal causation and that the study failed to make a distinction between muscle and fat mass or the location of excess weight. For example, weight that is situated on the abdomen is correlated with higher rates of heart disease than excess fat on the thighs and buttocks, which is thought to be healthier. Besides the obvious limitations, the team of researchers stress the statistical significance of the finding and hypothesize that carrying excess fat may have health-protective effects, even providing extra nourishment to the heart, which is fueled predominantly by fat.

This study flies in the face of the mantras of modern medicine.  According to the book by Terry Poulten, No Fat Chicks: How Women are Brainwashed to Hate Their Bodies and Spend Their Money, this is because stigmatization of fatness and obesity directly supports the billion-dollar weight loss industry. We live in a society that shuns those who are overweight, claiming that they are not only visually unappealing, according to the media, but “unhealthy” as well. The result is feelings of inferiority, feelings of shame and an unhealthy relationship with the body and with food. The common response to this shaming is yo-yo dieting, which health professionals unanimously agree is far more detrimental to health than being overweight and which can sometimes lead to eating disorders, which are the most dangerous of all mental illness afflictions. Women attempt to fight their bodies and lose weight, but all they really end up doing is losing their sense of self-worth and, in the process, their money, as they pursue one crash-diet after the other with nervous urgency fueled by societal stigmatization.

Now it turns out that, not only is it not unhealthy to be slightly overweight, it might even be protective in the case of chronic disease states, which demand more calories and energy from the body.

So, what’s the naturopathic conclusion one can make from this study? Before heading out to the doughnut shop in a delirious sugar-hungry frenzy and scarfing down a few, consider that this study simply serves to remind us that excess fat, while socially stigmatized as a marker of ill health, may not be so bad after all. Overweight people are not necessarily unhealthy and fat is not necessarily evil. In fact, our bodies love fat. We love to eat it and to store it. We’ve evolved to do so. Aiming to love our bodies and heal a tainted relationship with nutritious food is an important step for becoming healthier individuals and a healthier society that ignores the worshiping of thinness prevalent in the media and health circles today. And, as health professionals, we should also refrain from medicalizing those who appear to be overweight but are in fact physically fit and otherwise perfectly healthy.

That’s not to say, however, that everyone should dump their health goals and aim to become overweight. As I’ve often heard naturopathic doctors say, rather than losing weight to become healthy, it is preferable to make getting healthier the central goal. This means aiming to get at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, eating whole, unprocessed foods, avoiding excess sugar, alcohol and caffeine, getting 7-8 hours of sleep and managing stress. Sometimes we find that, through making these gradual changes to diet and lifestyle, we end up losing weight in the process. Other times we might not.

And, according to this JAMA study, that’s OK too.

For related articles on the stigmatization and commercialization of body image, click here:


5 thoughts on “Is Being Overweight Unhealthy?

  1. Dealing with a serious back injury I learned the hard way that I need to find my body’s version of healthy from the inside out – this includes eating right, sleeping more, resting and relaxing more and stressing way less and moderate exercise every day and amp up the cardio at least 3 times a week. Happy Friday:)

    1. Oh no! Did the back injury happen recently? There really is nothing like being sick/injured to sober us to the value of our health. Kudos to you for taking charge and making the effort to get your body back on track! Happy Friday!

  2. When are people going to realize that a one size fits all model, i.e. BMI, is complete BS? And further to that, when are people going to realize that they need to stop trusting our governments for health information that is truthful, factual, and supported by hard evidence? All this stigma and obsession over body image, the need to lose weight because it’s unhealthy, that FAT is bad for you..where does all of that come from? Oh would it be that the commodity markets (e.g. grain) lobby the hell out of the government to come up with a food guide that supports their industries? Or would it be that we are falsely lead to think that their justification is based on hard evidence? Where would you suppose these research organizations get their funding? I don’t know..maybe the same industries that have an agenda to push their services and George Carlin would say “it’s all BS folks, and it’s bad for ya!”

    1. Oh man, don’t even get me started on grain/dairy lobbies, and people thinking that’ general recommendations are based on “hard evidence”! Some skeptics say things to the tune of, “if alternative medicine were based on evidence it would be called medicine”, or something to that effect. Funny, I should say, if medical practitioners actual followed guidelines their medicine would look a LOT more similar to ours. So interesting and yet another reason to keep up on the current research out there! (and know how to critically assess it). PS George Carlin is the wisest man that’s ever lived. I often quote him in my head.

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