Diet & Nutrition

Study finds being overweight may not be as unhealthy as it was 40 years ago

“There is lots of evidence to show that people can live long and healthy lives in larger bodies”

By Cat Rodie

A new study from Denmark has found that being overweight might not be the health disaster that we’ve been led to believe.

The study, which was published in JAMA, found that people who were "moderately" overweight had lower rates of early death than people who were in the “normal weight”, “underweight” and “obese” categories.

Researchers from Copenhagen University looked at the height, weight and death rates of thousands of people at three different time periods since the 1970s.

They found that during the mid-1970s, those with the lowest death rates were a “normal weight” and the “obese” faced a 30% higher risk of early death. But now the threat to people's survival from being obese was now almost negligible.

The authors of the study say the most likely explanation is that health systems are now much better at treating obesity-linked conditions, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure.

Lead investigator Prof Borge Nordestgaard said: "Our results should not be interpreted as suggesting that now people can eat as much as they like, or that so-called normal-weight individuals should eat more to become overweight.

"That said, maybe overweight people need not be quite as worried about their weight as before."

Zoe Nicholson is a dietitian and owner of figureate consulting. She is also the co-founder of the moderation movement, who promote the principals of health at every size. She is not at all surprised by the JAMA study.

“There is lots of evidence to show that people can live long and healthy lives in larger bodies,” she says.

In fact, Zoe says that in some circumstances, having some extra body weight can actually be an advantage. For example, if an older person who has extra body weight has a fall, they are likely to recover faster than a person with no extra weight. "This is because the extra fat assists the body to heal as well as providing extra energy reserves at a time they're needed," she explains.

Although BMI is still wildly used, Zoe says that it’s not an accurate way to measure a person’s health.

“We’ve been high jacked with the idea that weight is a measurement of someone’s health – but what is much more important is a person’s physical fitness, mental health and social connectivity” she says.

And in terms of physical fitness, Zoe says that you don’t need to be participating in vigorous exercise to be in good health.

“Our bodies are meant to move – they don’t need to be running marathons they just have to move in all the ways you enjoy,” she explains.

Zoe believes that we have over simplified health to be about weight. Instead she says we should be focusing on changing health behaviors.

“If people are eating intuitively, being physically active and socially engaged then we know that those people can improve risk factor for disease. Research shows that blood sugar reduces, Cholesterol reduces, blood pressure reduces, and all of this happens independent of weight loss,” she explains.

On the flipside, Zoe says that when we focus on size then the issue becomes a vicious circle.

“When people are made to feel bad about their bodies they are less likely to look after them."

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