What should we believe?

One study suggests overweight people may live longer, despite all evidence to the contrary.

By 
Paul King, Editor

Like many people in the world, I made several resolutions for the new year, one of which is to lose weight. (The “goal gurus” suggest that placing a specific target number is a guaranteed way to fail, but my stomach and I have agreed on 15 pounds.) My orthopedist has told me that my knees and my back would thank me if I could drop a few pounds.

Of course, there are other, well-documented reasons why maintaining a healthy weight is beneficial, so it’s hard to find a reason why an overweight person would not aspire to a more svelte figure. So imagine my surprise the other night when, on the TV news, I heard a report from a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that posits that being a few pounds overweight might actually help you live longer.

In the report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Katherine Flegal of the CDC says overweight people have a 6% decreased “risk of death” compared with people who have a normal weight. (I always thought the risk of death was the same for every person—100%. What Flegal is trying to suggest is that overweight people have a 6% chance of living longer.)

It wasn’t long before the skeptics descended upon Flegal’s report, decried it as “rubbish.” One of the most vocal has been Dr. Walter Willett, an epidemiologist with the Harvard School of Public Health. In an article published on National Public Radio’s website, Willett said that the Flegal’s research is simplistic, since it relied primarily on measuring people’s Body Mass Index and doesn’t take into account a wide variety of other factors regarding people in the study, such as the fact that some thin people might be so because they suffer from illnesses that could cut short their lives

"We have a huge amount of other literature showing that people who gain weight or are overweight, have increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, many cancers and many other conditions," Willett was quoted in the article.

Reports like this always remind me of a book I read when I was in college, for a communications course called, aptly, “Persuasion.” Called How To Lie With Statistics, the tome demonstrated various ways in which people can bend and twist information to “prove” whatever point they are trying to make—and not always for nefarious reasons. Often, the problem is simply one of perception: you believe a certain thing; therefore, you tend either to see more data or give more weight to data that appear to validate your perception.

The bottom line is that humans are complex creatures, with no single type of measurement able to adequately capture them, and yet scientists continue to try. But I think it’s up to us as individuals to be honest with ourselves and have the courage and the discipline to do what’s right for us.

Despite how right Katherine Flegal may believe she is about those extra few pounds, I know that my current weight makes me less mobile and more prone to pain in my knees and back. So I think I’ll just go ahead and lose a few pounds. If I can accomplish that, I might die sooner, but my joints will die happy.