“Lose weight” is a response often given by doctors when health stats like blood pressure and cholesterol come back on the high side. But what if a little bit of weight actually protected you from the consequences of “unhealthy stats”?
Scientists call this “the obesity paradox,” and it’s actually been on the medical profession’s radar for more than a decade now. What it suggests is that people who are a bit overweight actually seem to fare better with chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and hypertension than people who are within the “normal weight” range. Needless to say, this is confounding doctors, who have spent their whole careers preaching weight loss as the best solution to a healthier body.
And this paradox isn’t just a theory. It’s been proven several times over by a number of studies since the baffling data first started showing up. Now a little bit of fat seems to be protecting patients with pneumonia, burns, stroke, cancer, hypertension and heart disease. Naturally, plenty of research has also been done to try to disprove the paradox and chalk it up to a data glitch, but so far, no study has been able to do so.
One epidemiologist’s research in particular has created the most controversy, because her data is so comprehensive (and thus harder to argue against). Katherine Flegal, who works at the CDC, has analyzed data from over 100 studies, which include almost 3 million patients. She and her colleagues found that while overweight and mildly obese people were a bit more likely to have potentially life-threatening conditions like heart disease, they were less likely to die from them than thin people were. Of course, the risk factors increase with severely obese people, but on the whole, based on Flegal’s numbers, a little more fat seems to help patients rather than hurt them.
Some have tried to rationalize research like Flegal’s by looking at the sort of medical treatment overweight people receive versus those in the normal weight range. The theory here is that overweight people get more intense medical treatment because of their weight. However, the data of one French endocrinologist, Boris Hansel, flies in the face of that. He looked at 54,000 patients who were at risk of stroke and heart attack and found that their extra fat protected them from said conditions, whether or not they were on the traditionally prescribed statins and beta-blockers.
So does all this mean we can finally stop exercising and dieting? Not really. However, the emphasis on actual weight loss might need to be reconsidered. But while the doctors are still fighting over that, here’s what seems to make the most sense, based on what we now know. You should still try to eat healthily and exercise regularly, but you don’t need to starve yourself or go to exercise boot camp every day.
This is called staying Health at Every Size, and essentially what that means is, take care of yourself physically and mentally, but also come to terms with where your body naturally wants to be on the scale. This doesn’t mean you should eat whatever you want and never challenge your body to meet fitness goals, but it does mean that stressing over staying under a certain BMI is not necessary in the long term. Linda Bacon, an author on the subject, told Quartz, “We’re so stuck on the fact that the only way to mediate health is through weight.”
Despite the undeniable evidence supporting the obesity paradox and the relief it could bring people struggling with their weight, the pushback from doctors continues. However, now that the media is starting to embrace overweight people, perhaps the medical profession will look more closely at these studies and realize there’s much more to health than numbers on a scale.