Obesity as morality and health

By Razib Khan | May 28, 2013 11:33 am

Normally I don’t post “read the whole thing,” but this really applies in the case of Virginia Hughes’ new piece in Nature, The big fat truth. The ‘counter-intuitive’ finding is that in some age groups the slightly overweight have the lowest mortality rates. This is not totally surprising news, though there has been a long term debate on whether this is an artifact or not. Hughes notes:

If the obesity-paradox studies are correct, the issue then becomes how to convey their nuances. A lot of excess weight, in the form of obesity, is clearly bad for health, and most young people are better off keeping trim. But that may change as they age and develop illnesses.

The key here is that one-size-fits-all public health jeremiads are probably counter-productive in the long term. The question isn’t whether to present nuances, it is how to do it well. It doesn’t seem the status quo is working out so well after all.


Comments (12)

  1. I don’t think they’re hiding much from people because they already implicitly know this. most seem to have decided that they don’t really care if they’re a little bit fat or just fat, period – it obviously isn’t *that* bad for you. I think people are equally or more unaware of how dangerous being super-overweight is – the myriad complications it adds to healthcare, etc. Virtually every single procedure available at hospital is made more difficult by obesity and I almost never hear people talk about that. And how safe is it for a child to be a little bit overweight?

    • With perhaps the exception of the severely obese, much of the “health” bit about obesity is canard; many of these individuals that harp on obesity do so for the ascetic aspect more than anything.

  2. Indeed. As I could have told you – as far as the conventional wisdom with obesity and mortality goes – that’s all bullshit.

    Obesity is negatively correlated with IQ. IQ appears to be a much stronger predictor of “early” death and poor health than obesity is. Hence, it is quite likely the connection between obesity and poor health and early death, when there is one, is primarily an artifact of low-IQ.

    And further, properly controlled clinical interventions that prescribe diet and exercise generally turn out to be ineffective in stemming mortality rates. The conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.

    For more, please see:

    Obesity and IQ | JayMan’s Blog

    IQ and Death | JayMan’s Blog

  3. Kevin Bonham

    Based on the graph they show in the piece, the only age group in which a BMI in the “overweight” range is the nadir of health risk is in people age 70+

    I don’t understand why this seems to be such a challenge. Also, I wonder if, because you tend to shrink as you age, if that’s skewing the perceived BMI (since your weight is divided by height, if the denominator is smaller, the number will be larger). How would those older people’s BMI look if the denominator was “lifetime maximum height” or something?

  4. TexCIS

    Smokers tend to be thinner. You can smoke to be slimmer, but that doesn’t make you healthier.

  5. Jody

    I think the other “paradox” here is that the evidence isn’t great that significant amounts of weight can be lost and kept off for prolonged period of time. Bodies adapt to the loss in calories and increase in exercise, returning to original weight levels.

    There’s also confounding studies of medically overweight people metabiologically the same as those who are not overweight… and the inverse too, where thin people internally are responding as if they are overweight.

    It’s tough not being a scientist to umm… weigh the value of all the studies here. But it does appear to me that weight and health is more complicated and, indeed, nuanced than the simple fat = unhealthy idea in popular circulation.

  6. Karch_Buttreau

    Should your title say “mortality” and not “morality?”

    • razibkhan

      nope. i think the public health message against fat takes strength in part because of moral/aesthetic concerns.

      (note that i share those concerns myself! but i’m honest about that part of the motivation)

  7. sleepmon

    I don’t see any mention of muscle mass here.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar