About two years ago, a group of federal researchers reported that overweight people have a lower death rate than people who are normal weight, underweight or obese. Now, investigating further, they found out which diseases are more likely to lead to death in each weight group.
Linking, for the first time, causes of death to specific weights, they report that overweight people have a lower death rate because they are much less likely to die from a grab bag of diseases that includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, infections and lung disease. And that lower risk is not counteracted by increased risks of dying from any other disease, including cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
Now, that’s just “overweight” people, mind you. Those of us in the “obese” category aren’t quite let off the hook. We do still have a higher death rate than “overweight” or “normal” weight folks, according to this study. However,
The federal researchers, led by Katherine Flegal, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the big picture they found was surprisingly complex. The higher death rate in obese people, as might be expected, was almost entirely driven by a higher death rate from heart disease.
But, contrary to expectations, the obese did not have an increased risk of dying from cancer.
Wait, what? Wasn’t every media outlet in the known universe telling me I’m gonna die of cancer just last week?
[Obese people] were slightly more likely than people of normal weights to die of a handful of cancers that are thought to be related to excess weight — cancers of the colon, breast, esophagus, uterus, ovary, kidney and pancreas. Yet they had a lower risk of dying from other cancers, including lung cancer. In the end, the increases and decreases in cancer risks balanced out.
Oh, I see. It turns out there are different kinds of cancer. WHO KNEW? Certainly not obesity researchers, evidently.
So this is still bad news for me, with a strong family history of heart disease, and for fat people with family histories of the cancers listed above. But at least it’s fucking honest about the fact that cancer is not a single disease, and that fat does have a protective value where some cancers are concerned. What a concept.
And you know, that’s maybe the most important point about this article, and the reason why so many people have sent it to me in the last 24 hours with a resounding, “Woo hoo!” The reality is, it’s a bunch of terrific news for the “overweight,” but only mixed news for the obese (and normal and underweight). It includes an opposing viewpoint from a doctor who still thinks no one should be fat (because, even if it doesn’t kill us, it “makes it more difficult to move about”). There’s plenty of stuff not to be excited about here, if all you’re looking to read is, “Fat is just swell!”
Which is, of course, exactly what a whole lot of people believe Shapelings want to hear.
But if you’re just looking for some friggin’ intellectual honesty in the reporting about fat? Then this article is indeed cause for celebration. After a week of TEH FAT WILL MAKE YOU CATCH CANCER!!1!1!, seeing a New York Times article that actually refers to “the big picture” where weight is concerned, and notes that it’s “surprisingly complex,” is easily the most exciting news since Lane Bryant unveiled the Right Fits.
I mean, I would take issue with the characterization of that complexity as “surprising.” They’re talking about analyzing four different weight categories and dozens of causes of death — is it really a shocker that there weren’t simple answers? Did anyone really expect the results to be, “Fat kills and thinness makes you immortal”? But that’s just a quibble. (As is my objection to the headline: “Causes of death are linked to a person’s weight.” Gee, that’s sure not going to be interpreted as “Fat kills” by the casual reader.)
And, I mean, in terms of the science, I take issue as always with the “obese” category encompassing a several hundred-pound range; Kolata points out that for a 5’4″ woman, the differences between “underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” and the low end of “obese” are each a matter of 20-30 lbs. Yet, the “obese” category covers everything from 180 lbs. to … infinity? That doesn’t seem quite right.
But here’s something that does:
Dr. Gail, though, had some advice, which, he said, is his personal opinion as a physician and researcher: “If you are in the pink and feeling well and getting a good amount of exercise and if your doctor is very happy with your lab values and other test results, then I am not sure there is any urgency to change your weight.”
A-fucking-men. And that’s the end of the article — there’s no “But ignore everything we just said, ’cause fat will still totally kill you!” sneak attack tacked onto the last paragraph. Color me refreshed.
Would someone please hire Gina Kolata to teach journalism classes? Like, all of them, everywhere?