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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Get fat, live longer Add to ...

Manhattanites have gained another reason to feel insufferably smug. This week, they learned they are the thinnest people in their state, and probably their entire country. America may be one big tub of lard, but not them! Compared to those fat slobs in the Bronx, they are paragons of fitness, health and virtue.

In Manhattan (as in the urban upper echelons of Canada, only more so), thin is a religion. It's a mark of status and prestige, not to mention ferocious dedication to fashion, dieting and working out. The thinnest people of all, no coincidence, also tend to be the richest. As the saying goes, the smaller the woman, the bigger the apartment.

Over in the chubby Bronx, social planners are raising the alarm. They're demanding more stores with fresh produce, better public transit, more parks, bans on trans fats and junk food in schools, more programs to promote physical activity, more public education about obesity, and lots more government money. In fact, the Bronx sounds an awful lot like Canada.

Thin was always in. But now, the social and public-health message is that fat is not simply a sign of sloth. It kills. The obesity epidemic is the greatest health crisis of the age. According to various health statistics (which are never consistent), between 17 per cent and 25 per cent of Canadian adults are obese. Thirty-six per cent of the adult population is overweight, or maybe two-thirds. Whatever. It's a catastrophe.

But is it? A new study based on Statistics Canada population data reaches an exceedingly awkward conclusion: People who are overweight live longer than people who are classified as "normal" weight. Not only that, people who are classified as significantly overweight also live longer.

The study, led by Statistics Canada's Heather Orpana, was devised to estimate the relationship between body mass index and mortality in Canadian adults. The database was nearly 12,000 people. The authors of the Canada-U.S. joint study adjusted for age, gender, smoking, physical activity and alcohol consumption. They found that the link between weight and mortality is relatively weak. The strongest finding was that underweight men are at greater risk than any other group.

But being overweight was associated with a 25-per-cent lower risk of dying. Being obese was associated with a 12-per-cent lower risk of dying. The risk for the most morbidly obese (who account for less than 3 per cent of all Canadians) was statistically the same as the risk for people of "normal" weight. The findings were published online in the research journal Obesity.

"Overweight may not be the problem we thought it was," said David Feeny, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Oregon, almost apologetically. "Overweight was protective." He added that agencies such as Health Canada might want to rethink the way they classify people's weight.

BMI - which is expressed as a simple height-weight ratio - has replaced the old insurance tables as the universal gauge for "healthy" weight. Its goalposts were recast in 1998, with the result that millions of previously healthy people were suddenly redefined as overweight. Today, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered "normal," a BMI of 25 to 29.9 "overweight," 30 to 34.9 "obese," 35 to 39.9 "severely obese" and over 40 "morbidly obese." By this measure, a 5-foot-4 woman is overweight at 146 pounds, obese at 175 lbs. and morbidly obese at 233 lbs. A 6-foot man is overweight at 184 lbs., obese at 221 lbs., and morbidly obese at 295 lbs. If you go by BMI, most Canadians in their 50s are too fat.

Is this study just a fluke? On the contrary. It confirms the findings of dozens of other large population studies that rarely get publicity. They all conclude that being overweight is not a problem, except at the extreme. In fact, a little extra padding is good for you.

"Decades of medical research that contradicts our popularized beliefs rarely reaches the public," says Sandy Swarcz, the brains behind the invaluable website junkfoodscience.com, where you can find a more detailed dissection of the Canadian results.

In 2005, another researcher, Katherine Flegel, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published another large study with similar findings. Prominent health experts were outraged, calling the research flawed. "There's not a lot of money in trying to debunk obesity, but a huge amount in making sure it stays a big problem," Patrick Basham, a professor of health-care policy at Johns Hopkins University, told The Associated Press.

Researchers and public-health authorities are heavily invested in obesity. So are major drug companies, which help fund influential bodies such as the International Obesity Task Force. The Canadian Obesity Network, which gets millions in government funding, lists dozens of leading drug companies as its "industry partners."

Here's more bad news for all those folks who are nagging us about our weight. The evidence is very clear that, unless you are morbidly obese with health problems, losing lots of weight is bad for you, not good.

For reasons that are not well understood, people who lose substantial amounts of weight, or go up and down on yo-yo diets, suffer long-term adverse health effects. Oprah is an absolutely terrible role model, along with all the folks featured on America's Biggest Loser. As one expert told Newsweek, "People show an improvement in short-term risk factors [blood pressure and blood sugar levels] but they die. I don't think that's a good outcome."

So who are the healthiest people of them all? Dear reader, they may well be people just like you - aging boomers who have reluctantly succumbed to middle-aged spread. Reubin Andres of the U.S. National Institute on Aging reviewed all the major population studies and found that people who gain a pound or so a year in middle age live the longest.

That extra weight is protective, especially for women. So relax. God doesn't want you to fit into your old jeans.

I am now obliged to add that none of this excuses bad eating habits or sloth. Diet and exercise - especially exercise - are clearly linked to health. But unless you are unusually thin or extremely obese - categories that describe less than 5 per cent of all Canadians - your weight doesn't matter too much. Despite the alleged obesity epidemic, our life expectancy continues to increase, and deaths by heart attack and stroke continue to decline.

Sadly, we're not likely to see headlines any time soon that say, "Ninety-five per cent of us have weight that is okay." Not when we're all convinced that socially, if not medically, we're too fat, and that we'd be vastly better off if only we could shed those extra 20 or 30 or 40 pounds. So just remember this: Those fashionably anorexic Manhattanites are the ones we envy. But the people in the Bronx will have the last laugh.

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