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From the Research Files: Skinny People Die Young

Posted Nov 26 2008 12:28pm

Skinny people die young. Compared to overweight people, that is. Contradicting what I, and many of you, have come to feel is common sense, this study says that people in the "overweight" category of the BMI scale live longer, healthier lives than their "normal" counterparts with people in the "underweight" and "obese" categories having the worst outcomes. Okay, so ignore the underweight and obese people for a moment; I think we can all figure out why they might have health problems (Kate Moss & Chris Farley walk into a bar...). Um, OVERWEIGHT people have better health outcomes than NORMAL people!!

This is huge. And underreported, according to Gina Kolata, author of Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss - And the Myths and Realities of Dieting. Despite being done over two years ago, this study is finally being published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, leading overweight people everywhere to roll their eyes and say "duh" and normal people to choke on their pride and fall off their carefully constructed pedestals.

The Study
Federal researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (star of so many made-for-tv-movies!) studied data from 3 large national surveys, the National Health & Nutrition surveys. They chose a study group supposed to be representative of the national population and then actually weighed and measured them to make sure they were, ahem, accurate in their report of height and weight. Which is definitely a good thing since people are notorious liars on those counts;) The participants were then followed until they died (by Federal Researchers! Ominous!! Conspiracy theories, anyone?) and their deaths were reported from what was written on their death certificate.

The Results
According to Kolata, "Linking, for the first time, causes of death to specific weights, they report that overweight people have a lower death rate because they are much less likely to die from a grab bag of diseases that includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, infections and lung disease. And that lower risk is not counteracted by increased risks of dying from any other disease, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease." The researchers even adjusted for variables such as smoking or existing disease or heart disease from diabetes. Their findings remained the same: people in the overweight group lived the longest.

Repeat after me, correlation is not causation. This study cannot definitively say what caused people to die. Also, death certificates often do not show all the causes of a person's demise. It may say "heart disease" but not that the heart disease was brought on by complications of diabetes. This study also contradicts previous, smaller studies by such luminaries as Harvard. This study should not be used as an excuse to park it on your couch all day and shovel in simple carbs.

What is Normal?
It makes me wonder what "normal" really is. We have long known that the BMI scale sucks. It doesn't account for muscle mass or cardiovascular health or a great immune system or anything else that would be a measure of good health but we've always been told that it is a useful tool for most people. For the average, normal person. But what if normal is larger than what we've been taught? What if normal is much, much larger that our societal ideal of beauty?? What then, of all those girls who say they would rather die than be fat? It sounds like they might just get their wish.

My Friend the Triathlete
Anecdotally this makes sense to me. One of my good friends - and best workout buddies until she moved, the traitor- falls into the BMI's overweight category. (And this is by her own admission, I don't walk around polling my friends thank you.) She is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the BMI and the way we think about it. I have watched girlfriend leg press 400 lbs. She can bench press my body weight. She competes in triathlons and not just finishes, but WINS them. Despite me being firmly in the "normal" BMI category, she can out-swim, out-bike & out-lift me any day of the week. My pride does not take that well. Fortunately I can still out-run her. I have to be good at something, darn it!

So who is in better shape? Who should be considered the normal one?

What this all means to me is that our society is long overdue for a serious head examination. Why do insist on perpetuating standards of "health" and "beauty" and are neither healthful nor beautiful?

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