The answer to this question is a no brainer right? Too much extra weight inevitably puts stress and strain on the body. So being obese just can’t be healthy.
Or, can it?
This article seems to indicate that being obese might not be as unhealthy as we think.
In 2012, researchers found that overweight and obese people are at no greater risk of developing, or dying from, heart disease or cancer than people of a normal weight…as long as they are metabolically fit.
Of course, a myriad of other studies point to links between obesity and a whole host of health conditions.
But I have to say, my interest was definitely piqued by this research. I began to wonder if there are conditions under which you can be obese but still be healthy.
So naturally, I did a lot of research on the topic and found quite a bit of interesting information, which I’m going to share with you.
But, before we get to the lowdown on obesity and health, let’s look at what obesity is, and how common it has become in the US.
What is Obesity?
Obesity Action defines obesity as a condition associated with having an excess of body fat, which is classified by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Obesity can be caused by dietary and lifestyle factors, genetics or medical conditions.
What’s more, obesity is most definitely on the rise. Today, 17% of US children and adolescents are affected by obesity – three times the amount affected just one generation ago.
And yet there are people out there who claim that you can be obese and still be healthy.
Are they right? Let’s see what the research says.
Health Issues Linked with Obesity
Over the last number of decades, a variety of illnesses have been linked with obesity – from heart disease and diabetes to certain cancers. Here’s a closer look at some of these conditions.
Heart Disease and Stroke
As your BMI goes up, so does the amount of plaque that builds up inside your coronary arteries. This plaque causes the arteries to become narrow or blocked, reducing blood flow to the heart.
As a result, you’re more likely to suffer heart disease, a heart attack or angina (chest pain and discomfort).
If an area of plaque ruptures, it can lead to a blood clot, which can cause stroke.
While the link between obesity and heart conditions used to be considered an indirect one, long-term studies now show that obesity can actually predict such conditions.
A study published in 2005 examined the association between BMI, overall mortality and mortality from specific causes. The researchers followed 115,195 American women over a 16-year period.
They found that non-smoking women with a BMI of 32 or higher were four times more at risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than leaner women.
Obesity predicts heart conditions in men too.
When almost 4,000 men with a mean age at entry of 30.8 years were followed for 26 years, researchers discovered that BMI was “a significant predictor” of the 390 cases of heart disease, heart attack or sudden death.
Type 2 Diabetes
Those who are overweight or obese often have a lot of excess weight around the middle.
This kind of visceral abdominal fat causes fat cells to releases ‘pro-inflammatory’ chemicals, which make the body less sensitive to insulin. Insulin resistance is a major trigger for type 2 diabetes.
In fact, obesity is believed to account for 80 to 85% of the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A 2005 report, published by Diabetes UK, states that obese people are up to 80 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with a BMI of less than 22.
Gallbladder Disease & Gallstones
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ located just beneath your liver. It holds the digestive fluid ‘bile’ that’s released into your small intestine.
Gallstones are hard particles that develop in the gallbladder – usually they consist primarily of hardened cholesterol.
As obesity increases the amount of cholesterol in bile increases, which can cause stone formation. Those who are overweight have a higher chance of developing these stones.
In a study of over 90,000 women, 2,122 cases of newly diagnosed gallstones occurred during the eight year follow-up year period.
Researchers found that the higher the BMI, the greater the risk of having gallstones. In fact, the women with a BMI greater than 45 kg/m2 had a seven fold increase in risk compared with those whose BMI was less than 24 kg/m2.
It’s not just gallstones associated with obesity – gallbladder disease is too.
Over seven years, 200 obese patients were studied, with scientists finding that gallbladder disease is considerably more frequent in the morbidly obese population.
It’s actually a type of arthritis, which is more common in men than women. Some studies say obesity is a risk factor for development of gout.
In research published in 2005, over 47,000 men were studied to determine the relationship between obesity, weight change and gout.
While none of the men had a history of gout at the beginning of the study, 730 men did develop it over the 12 year follow-up period.
Researchers found that men with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 (overweight) had almost double the chance of getting gout than those who were a healthy weight.
However, obese men, with a BMI of 30 to 34.9, were 2.33 times more likely to develop the condition.
Those with a BMI of over 35 had a three fold increase in gout risk, indicating that gout and weight are strongly linked.
Another arthritis linked with obesity is osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, which affects millions of people worldwide.
Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage cushioning the ends of the bones in your joints deteriorates.
In addition, fat tissue also produces pro-inflammatory substances that can cause joint pain.
Over 1,000 women aged 45 to 64 were studied to find the effect of body fat on the prevalence of osteoarthritis in the knee. The study’s authors concluded that excess body weight is “a powerful predictor of osteoarthritis of the knee in middle aged women”.
However, many researchers say that, even though a relationship exists between obesity and this condition of the joints, additional work is needed to further understand how this excess weight may impact pain and joint damage.
Respiratory difficulties, including sleep apnea and asthma, may be caused or aggravated by obesity.
Research published in 2008 found that, of over 1,100 asthmatic adults studied, those who had a BMI of over 30 were more likely to report a lower quality of life due to asthma problems.
They were also more likely to experience worsened asthma flare-ups and an increase in hospitalizations related to the illness.
What’s more, a 2012 study reports that adults who are overweight or obese experience significant improvements in their asthma symptoms when they lose weight.
Sleep apnea is a condition where you can actually stop breathing for brief moments throughout the night, making for an interrupted sleep. Many people with the condition are not even aware they have it.
1994 research discovered that severely or morbidly obese people, particularly men, are at extremely high risk for sleep apnea and should be routinely evaluated for the condition.
The researchers who observed the 200 obese women and 50 obese men as they slept (along with 128 non-obese people) also noted that obese patients, both male and female, without sleep apnea endured a more disturbed sleep than non-obese sleepers.
The National Sleep Foundation say that obese children also suffer from an increased incidence of sleep apnea.
A 20-year review of obesity associated diseases in children aged 6 to 17, conducted by the CDC, found a 436% increase in hospital discharges for sleep apnea.
They also say that obesity will lead to about 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the United States by 2030.
Examples of studies linking cancer and obesity include:
- A 16 year study of over 900,000 people, which found that those who were obese were more likely to be diagnosed and die from cancer, than those who were a normal weight.
- A 2007 study found that colon cancer risk increased significantly in men with high BMIs, but less so in women. The cancer risk increased with increasing waist circumference in both men and women.
- A 2014 study of 80,000 women with breast cancer discovered that pre-menopausal women who were obese had a 21.5% percent chance of dying from the disease, compared with a 16.6% chance in those with normal BMI.
Health Benefits Linked with Obesity
As you can see there are plenty of medical conditions associated with obesity, but are there any health benefits?
Some research indicates there might be, particularly when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis in men, dementia, lifespan and recovery time from illness.
Men with a BMI over 25 were estimated to be between 40% and 63% less likely to develop RA.
One of the study’s authors says that the effect of obesity on the risk of RA did not appear to be different from that of the effect of being overweight.
However, he did state that the effect of a very high BMI isn’t known.
While being overweight has previously been linked with dementia, a recent study, published in April 2015, has found the opposite to be true.
This latest research, which looked at nearly 2 million people, suggests that those who are overweight or obese in middle age may be less likely to develop dementia than those of a normal weight.
Of course, this research just shows that a link exists, it doesn’t say that being obese actively protects you from dementia.
Longevity & Faster Recovery
Research carried out by the CDC has found that a BMI within the overweight range (25 to 29.9) may extend your life span.
The findings were based on data from 97 previous studies that examined nearly three million adults.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Brian Kit, says that when we are sick our bodies require more energy for healing. Extra fat provides extra energy, allowing us to recover faster.
He also says that, even though overweight people are more likely to develop serious illnesses than their normal weight peers, they are less likely to die from them.
Kit claims this is because overweight people receive better medical care due to the added risks of their condition, as perceived by their doctors.
Of course, these statistics are for people who are overweight, rather than obese, so it’s uncertain if the findings hold true as BMI rises to 30 or over.
Although there are some studies that show being obese can confer some benefits, these studies are not common and can’t definitively say that the excess weight is at the root of the health advantages.
Even the study that found obesity can lead to a longer life, also found that overweight people are more likely to develop serious illnesses.
So even though obese people may live longer, they may suffer more with chronic conditions during their extra years.
And who wants that? I certainly don’t!
So, if we take more than lifespan into account when defining health, if we consider the quality of that lifespan,then for now it seems we can safely say that you can’t be obese and healthy.
To avoid illnesses like cancer, heart disease and osteoarthritis, it’s best to strive for a normal BMI through healthy eating and regular exercise.
What are your thoughts on the notion that it’s possible to be both healthy and obese?
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