The Freshman 15: Being Moderately Overweight Could Lead to Longer Life
For many of you, your very first quarter at college has ended, and chances are that all that pizza and partying has made you come head-to-head with one of college’s most dreaded side-effects: the Freshman 15. Although gaining some weight in college is almost unavoidable, most people may try to use the spirit of New Year’s Resolutions in order to help motivate themselves to shirk off those extra pounds by hitting the gym. But you may want to hold off buying some lycra shorts and a gym subscription just yet; a new study of nearly 3 million people shows that being merely overweight may actually help you live longer than people with “normal body weight.”
The study of nearly 3 million adult men and women was published online this Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Lead author Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her research team pooled together 97 studies from numerous countries worldwide, including the US, Canada, Australia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Europe.
“We searched all the literature, thousands of articles, found almost 100 articles with 3 million people, that really addressed this question head on,” Flegal says.
Unsurprisingly, Flegal and her team reinforced findings linking severe obesity, in which people possess a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or more, to a number of related illness and often shorter lives when compared to those in the “normal” BMI range of 18.5 to 24.9.
But Flegal’s research team also discovered that those classified as slightly to moderately overweight, with a BMI of 25 to 29.9, died at somewhat lower death rates, and people labelled as mildly obese, with a BMI of 30 to 34.9, had death rates about equal to than those at normal weight. Contributing factors to shorter lifespan, such as cigarette smoking, were also accounted for.
While the decrease in death rates for the moderately overweight is only about 6% less, Flegal says that the drop is “statistically significant,” especially given how nearly 1/3 of all Americans can be put into this category. While Flegal’s paper does not make any health recommendations in the paper, she does say that the main goal is to help the public and health care professionals ensure the best state health for themselves as possible.
“Our goal is really to summarize existing information and not conclude what people should do, other than follow good health practices, no matter what their weight,” she said.
The study has not been without its detractors, however. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public health, for example, critisized the paper for relying too heavily on just a person’s BMI rather than their health and fitness routines, and lacking consideration of how some people may be thin due to illness. Additionally, people who are extra muscular often register as overweight on the BMI.
Other professionals in the healthcare field are somewhat more open to the veracity of Flegal’s claims, including obesity researcher Dr. Steven B. Heymsfield, the executive director of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who offered up several possible reasons for why being slightly overweight could pose some benefits to personal health.
According to Heymsfield, a few extra pounds often helps those with severe diseases, such as heart or kidney failure, fare better than their thinner counterparts, and that the increase in weight helps to prevent osteoporosis and the chance of injury during a fall, meaning that their may in fact be a survival advantage inherent in being slightly heavier than what is currently considered normal.
“I think we should be open-minded and ask, ‘OK, what could be helpful about fat?’” Heymsfield said.
The study can be found online at the Journal of American Medical Association.