Okay, every Shapeling and their grandma has sent me a version of this news, so I’d better get on it. (Thanks, everybody, and sorry I’m slow!)
A new study suggests that a surprising number of overweight people — about half — have normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while an equally startling number of trim people suffer from some of the ills associated with obesity.
The first national estimate of its kind bolsters the argument that you can be hefty but still healthy, or at least healthier than has been believed.
The results also show that stereotypes about body size can be misleading, and that even “less voluptuous” people can have risk factors commonly associated with obesity, said study author MaryFran Sowers, a University of Michigan obesity researcher.
GEE, YOU DON’T SAY.
Of course, as others have noted, it’s only fucking “surprising” if you’ve ignored all the previous research saying the same thing, and continued to buy into those misleading stereotypes. Also, I left out the first line of the AP article there, which is: “You can look great in a swimsuit and still be a heart attack waiting to happen. And you can also be overweight and otherwise healthy.” Hey, thanks for leading with a reminder that even if fat people can be healthy, we still can’t look great in swimsuits*, Lindsay Tanner!
The L.A. Times is even better. Not only does Shari Roan focus on the “visceral fat is what will kill you” angle instead of the “Fat does not equal unhealthy” one, she phrases it thusly: “You can be normal weight** and be just as bad off as old tubby next door.”
Charming. Do they seriously not teach journalists today that phrases like “old tubby” (see also “ballooning,” “packing on the pounds,” “X pounds of blubber/lard,” etc.) and commentary on folks’ bikini-readiness have no fucking place in science reporting? Or that “colorful” language like that might just suggest you have a deeply ingrained bias against fat people, and therefore are probably not the person to report objectively on studies about our health?
Anyway. Roan’s phrasing also leaves out the pertinent point that “old tubby next door” has a greater than 50% chance of not being badly off at all, according to this research. What it actually shows is that you can be normal weight and far less healthy than old tubby. You can be normal weight and just as badly off as your normal weight neighbor. You can be old tubby herself and be better — or worse — off than another old tubby across the street. You can be any weight and healthy, or any weight and sick. You can’t tell how healthy someone is just by looking. That’s the fucking point.
From the latter link, in one study,
Dr. Wildman and colleagues looked at a cross-sectional sample of 5,440 participants in NHANES, and stratified them according to BMI and cardiometabolic abnormalities, including elevated blood pressure; triglycerides, fasting plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin resistance value, as well as low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
“Metabolically normal” = one or none of the things on that list, and “metabolically abnormal” equals anything above that. Here’s who was metabolically abnormal: 23.5% of normal weight adults, just under 50% of overweight adults, and just under 70% of obese adults.
The other study looked at “the pathophysiological mechanisms of type 2 diabetes” and found that 24% of obese patients were not insulin resistant and — contrary to researchers’ expectations — “the insulin sensitivity and the intima-media thickness [of the common carotid artery] of the insulin-sensitive obese group were similar [to] those of the normal BMI participants”. Or, as study leader Dr. Nobert Stefan says, “a metabolically benign obesity that is not accompanied by insulin resistance and early atherosclerosis exists in humans.“
GEE, YOU DON’T SAY.
So yes, there is still a correlation between higher weights and metabolic abnormality. But as we’ve been saying all along, this does not apply to all fat people or let thin people off the hook — which is why there’s so much pants-shitting going on in the media over this.
Also — brace yourself — you’re more likely to be “metabolically abnormal” if you’re older and sedentary. NO WAY!
They also did find a correlation, yet again, between waist circumference and metabolic iffiness — presumably because a higher waist circumference can be an indication of higher levels of visceral fat, which appears to be the baddie. (Thin people can have high levels of visceral fat, too.)
Now, every time I talk about waist circumference/visceral fat, I hear from apple-shaped folks who are quite understandably pissed off that the OBESITY CRISIS BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA heat is just shifting over to them. So let me make two points I’ve made many times before, because they’re well worth repeating.
1) My favorite fun fact ever: Sumo wrestlers tend to have low levels of visceral fat. And it’s usually sedentary thin people who have high levels of it. The evidence suggests that exercise is protective against visceral fat, even if it doesn’t make you thin — so if you’re able to exercise, there is something you “can do about it,” which doesn’t involve starving yourself or getting a tummy tuck.
2) Risk factors are just that — risk factors, not death sentences — and we’re all stuck with risk factors for diseases that we can’t do anything about. Family history is the most obvious example — you have no control over whether your parents and grandparents had diabetes, cancer, heart disease, whatever, which is why nobody suggests you have an obligation to “do something” about those risk factors. If you’re lucky enough to get old, you’ll be at increased risk for practically everything — but nobody suggests killing yourself on your fiftieth birthday to avoid that risk factor. Likewise, if you are predisposed to be fat and/or carry weight around your middle, that’s just another risk factor you’re stuck with. For many of us, making a substantial, permanent change to our weights is just as impossible as going back in time and choosing different parents.
And for many of us, as this research shows, being fat will not lead to poor health anyway. And as always, you can’t tell who’s most at risk by looking. Hell, I’m more hourglass-shaped than apple-shaped (though I am officially obese and my waist circumference exceeds the recommendation for women), but given my pesky family history of diabetes, I’m still probably more likely to end up in the insulin-resistant category than the “metabolically benign” one someday. It sucks, but it is what it is.
Fat does not equal unhealthy. Thin does not equal healthy. Exercise is beneficial if you can do it and are so inclined, regardless of whether you lose weight. Getting old makes you more likely to get sick, but it’s better than the alternative. Risk factors are not death sentences. Being sick is not a personal failure.
That’s the big fucking news here. But we already knew all that, didn’t we?
*For those who missed it, that’s Fillyjonk rockin’ the swimsuit.
**I have not put “normal weight” in irony quotes throughout, because it would seriously clutter up this post, but please imagine they’re there.