Study: Weight Not Necessarily an Indicator of Health

By Christine Cupaiuolo — August 12, 2008

A new study published Monday confirms that body weight isn’t an accurate indicator for certain health risks.

Researchers found that almost one-quarter of adults who were classified as “normal” weight, or approximately 16.3 million people nationwide, have indicators for one or more of the risks usually associated with being overweight — such as elevated blood pressure or higher levels of triglycerides, blood sugar and cholesterol.

And slightly more than half of overweight adults, or about 36 million people, and almost one-third of obese adults, 19.5 million people, were deemed metabolically healthy. (Weight classifications were determined by body mass index, a height-weight ratio that is criticized for not distinguishing between fat and muscle.)

In both “normal weight” and “overweight” or “obese” groupings,  older adults, people who smoked, and those with greater waist circumferences were more likely to have health risks. Physical activity levels also were a factor.

“We’re really talking about taking a look with a very different lens” at weight and health risks, study author MaryFran Sowers, a professor of public health at University of Michigan, told the AP. Lindsey Tanner reports:

It’s no secret that thin people can develop heart-related problems and that fat people often do not. But that millions defy the stereotypes will come as a surprise to many people, Sowers said.

Even so, there’s growing debate about the accuracy of the standard method of calculating whether someone is overweight. Health officials rely on the body mass index, a weight-height ratio that does not distinguish between fat and lean tissue. The limits of that method were highlighted a few years ago when it was reported that the system would put nearly half of NBA players in the overweight category.

A number of experts say waist size is a more accurate way of determining someone’s health risks, and the study results support that argument.

Dr. Robert Eckel, a former American Heart Association president and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, said the new research may help dismiss some of the generalizations that are sometimes made about weight and health.

Study co-author Judith Wylie-Rosett emphasized that the study shouldn’t send the message “that we don’t need to worry about weight.” That’s because half of overweight people do face elevated risks for heart disease, explained Wylie-Rosett, a nutrition researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

But, for those without elevated risks, losing weight “might be important only from a cosmetic perspective,” she said.

Given that body weight is an emotionally complicated issue for women — and that fat people are blamed for everything, including rising health care costs, the study is an important addition to the research, though as Kate Harding notes — “GEE, YOU DON’T SAY” — the findings aren’t exactly new.  (Also be sure to read one of Kate’s previous posts about fat and health).

Sigh. Changing public attitudes may be as much of an uphill battle as changing beauty standards.

The Obese Without Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering and the Normal Weight With Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering” was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study included 5,440 adult participants in the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES), conducted between 1999 and 2004. Smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake and use of medications were assessed by self-reporting.

4 responses to “Study: Weight Not Necessarily an Indicator of Health”

  1. That s why some heavy people can be fit on the inside — healthier even than some of their thinner peers. Many people who diet but don t exercise to lose weight, for example, may technically reach a healthy weight, but their fitness level doesn t match. They may appear trim on the outside, but still carry too much visceral fat and not enough muscle on the inside. “They’re not physically active. They have horrible and restrictive diets. They might not be overweight, but metabolically they’re a mess,” says Church.

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