A few years ago, researchers and the media were obsessing over an idea they called the “obesity paradox.” Using dubious science, they attempted to convince people that obesity actually conferred protection against certain diseases — including type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Unfortunately, a lot of people fell for it. Because what’s more appealing than being told you can keep those extra pounds and still stay healthy? Of course, I’ve been speaking out against the notion ever since it emerged.
As I said then, if you took the time to look deeper into the science, rather than just taking comfort in the headlines and helping yourself to another guilt-free slice of cake, it turns out that all of these findings should have had a huge asterisk after them. Let’s take a closer look at some of the diseases extra pounds are supposed to protect against.
Do the “benefits” of obesity outweigh the risks?
Type 2 diabetes? The research only found that among people with type 2 diabetes, the obese and the normal weight people had the same mortality rate. Obesity didn’t offer any protection from the debilitating side effects that come along with type 2 diabetes.
Breast cancer? Whatever “protection” obesity offers against breast cancer appears to be due to the fact that obese women’s hormones are often so skewed that they don’t ovulate. And that means less estrogen, which means less fuel for certain types of breast cancer to grow. In other words, even if obesity is associated with lower rates of breast cancer, it’s for very unhealthy reasons. Hormonal imbalance is hardly something to strive for.
Osteoporosis? Sure, carrying around extra weight is like, well, carrying around weights. It’s sort of like you’re doing weight-bearing exercise every time you move. But is it the healthiest way? Of course not. And considering the fact that obesity impairs physical function and hastens disability, the modicum of joint protection it offers doesn’t seem all that valuable.
Heart disease? Researchers touted this claim loudest of all, citing findings that obese patients with heart failure have a 33 percent lower risk of dying compared to the normal and underweight patients. That’s all well and good, but again, obesity greatly increases the risk of developing heart disease to begin with. So pretending that it offers protection against heart disease death is ludicrous.
You know what protects against heart disease death? Not getting heart disease in the first place.
The fact is, no matter what small “advantages” obesity has in these very specific situations, it fails the big test: mortality. Being overweight or obese without a doubt leads to higher all-cause mortality. And that’s the measure we should all have in mind as we’re deciding what’s healthy and what isn’t.
Thank goodness new research is coming out that shines a light on just how backward the idea of “healthy obesity” really is.
“Healthy” obese people still at higher risk of heart disease
A new study conducted in Denmark pours cold water on the idea that obese people can be “metabolically healthy” — and therefore not at risk for obesity-related diseases.
That notion, which ties in with the whole “obesity paradox,” suggested that a certain subset of people can be obese but still have healthy metabolic markers like cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar. And those people, according to proponents of the idea of metabolically healthy obesity, weren’t at any higher risk for health issues than normal-weight people with similar lab results.
This whole movement has led to the misconception that you can be overweight or even obese and still be healthy. Which simply isn’t true, and which has caused untold damage already. This new Danish study sets the record straight and shows just how wrong that notion is.
The researchers analyzed data from more than 6,200 men and women who took part in a large study and were followed for 10 years. They looked at the participants’ body mass index (BMI) and compared it against those metabolic markers I mentioned earlier (HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar).
People who were doing well in all of those categories were classified as “metabolically healthy.” But the findings of the study show that the obese people were anything but.
During the follow-up period, men who had started out as obese but “metabolically healthy” had three times the risk of developing heart disease as metabolically healthy men with normal weight. In women, the risk for heart disease was twice as high in the “metabolically healthy” women who were obese.
So obesity on its own, regardless of a person’s metabolic markers, is a risk factor for heart disease. And a big one, at that.
But here’s another important finding that shows just how badly the media has blown the healthy obesity idea out of proportion. The researchers found that “metabolically healthy obese” people are basically unicorns. Of the 6,200 people included in the study, only 58 men and 114 women — 3 percent of the study population — classified as “metabolically healthy obese.”
And even for the ones who did earn that coveted designation, the glory was short-lived. Within five years, 40 percent of them became metabolically unhealthy.
Which proves that not only is it incredibly unlikely to be metabolically healthy if you’re obese, it’s also very likely to be temporary.
And let’s not forget that heart disease is only one of the very many risks of being obese. Those extra pounds put you at increased risk of diabetes, joint and musculoskeletal problems, pain, sleep apnea, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, gall bladder disease, and on and on and on… No matter what your bloodwork tells you.
Should we trust BMI anyway?
You’ll notice that this study used BMI to assess obesity, as did all the other research I mentioned. And you’ve heard me say it before, but it’s worth saying again: BMI is not a good way to assess whether you’re at a healthy weight.
Here’s why. Obesity is a simple ratio of weight compared to height. Without looking at you, I can tell you your BMI with nothing more than knowledge of how much you weigh and how tall you are. BMI tells me nothing of your body composition. It’s just a simple math equation.
You could be a bodybuilder with 4 percent body fat and register as obese. Similarly, you could be a couch potato with a slight build but plenty of extra padding, and you’ll appear to be of healthy weight.
That’s why athletes often have higher BMIs than non-athletic people of the same height. But we certainly wouldn’t argue that elite athletes are less healthy than similarly sized people who eat junk and never exercise.
For all of these reasons, I really don’t like using BMI as a measure of health. A more accurate way of assessing obesity is to look at factors like waist circumference and body fat. But BMI is easier to calculate, so researchers stick with it. Even if it totally skews the results of whatever research they conduct.
Yes, you still need to get in shape
Back to the topic at hand, though. It’s simply not possible to be obese and healthy. I know it’s not something people who are struggling with their weight want to hear, but it needs to be said.
And I’m sorry if it feels like I’m constantly harping on weight. I promise that it’s not because I want to pick on people or make them feel bad about their bodies. That’s the last thing I want to do.
The reason I talk so much about weight is that maintaining your body’s ideal weight (which is different for everyone) is essential for your health. And that’s true independent of whatever other risk factors you might have. It’s just that simple.
It’s not an aesthetic issue. It has nothing to do with how you look in a swimsuit or whether you fit some standard ideal of beauty. It’s 100 percent about your health. I want you to be healthy and strong and live the best life possible. And you can’t do that if you’re obese.
Trust me, I know how hard it is to struggle with weight. I too was overweight years ago, and it took a lot of hard work and determination to change my relationship with my body and achieve a healthy weight. So believe me when I say that I understand just how difficult it is to overcome a weight problem. But I also know it can — and must — be done.
What drives me crazy about the publicity this so-called “obesity paradox” receives is that it lulls people into a false sense of security and encourages them to make bad choices. People who have been working hard at getting to a healthy weight read these stories and think, “Maybe it’s not worth the effort.” And they give up on their healthier diets, stop exercising, and slip right back into their unhealthy routines.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that carrying around extra weight isn’t bad for you. The small benefits you hear reported are hardly benefits at all once you look at them more closely. If you want to be healthy, you have to keep your weight in check. Even if it’s hard. Even if it would be infinitely easier to give up and believe in the headlines.
There’s simply no such thing as healthy obesity. Period.
But here’s the good news: shedding those excess pounds doesn’t have to be the grueling, joyless experience you might think. In fact, I’ve found a way to make it easier than ever…and dare I say FUN?
My new book, The A-List Diet gives you simple, step-by-step instructions for putting the power of amino acids to work for you. And it shows you how a few specific aminos (called branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short) can rev up your metabolism beyond anything you’ve ever tried before. Of course, The A-List Diet also offers complete meal plans and dozens of delicious recipes.
In other words, I’ve taken all the guesswork out of it for you…Follow the steps I outline in The A-List Diet, and I guarantee you WILL lose weight. Yes, even if you’ve tried everything else under the sun with no measurable results.
All you have to do is get started!
You can get your copy of the A-List Diet in your local bookstore, or by visiting www.alistdietbook.com.