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Being Overweight, Not Just Obese, Increases Death Risk, Says Largest Study to Date

Overweight and body mass index

Even overweight means health risk

A study out today in The New England Journal of Medicine says that there is a significant risk to being simply overweight, not just obese. This has been a controversial point in public health research, with earlier studies showing mixed results.

Now, the most massive analysis of data on Americans shows that being a little chubby around the middle – not just obese – has major health effects.

The researchers did a meta-analysis (a review of multiple studies) and included data on 1.5 million white americans, all non-smokers who had no existing heart disease or cancer at the beginning of the study. The population had a median age of 58 and were followed for anywhere from 5 to 28 years. Those who were only overweight had a increased risk of dying.

Here’s what they found, including the “sweet spot” – the ideal BMI for lowering risk of death:

Those who were considered overweight, with a BMI of at least 25, were 13 percent more likely to die during the time they were followed than their normal weight peers. The least risk of death was found for those with a BMI between 20 and 24.9. Interestingly, for women, the higher end of the ideal BMI (between 22.5 and 24.9) was the most healthy.

As an example,  a 5-foot 5-inch female weighing 150 to 179 pounds had a 13 percent increased risk of dying sooner than normal weight peers, while women who were obese — the same height, but more than 180 pounds — had a 44 percent higher risk. The findings were similar for men.

A person with a BMI of 35 (severely obese) or higher had an 88 percent increased risk of death — 17 percent of women and 11 percent of men in the U.S. fall into that category.

Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. But more importantly, obesity rates for children have tripled since the 1980′s. According to the CDC, preschool obesity has gone from 5 to 10 percent, and obesity among children 6 to 11-years-old has gone from 6 to 20 percent in that time period.

The current study looks at adults, but imagine the results that a study like this will turn up in 50 years. We can predict the effects will compound — since the obesity trend has gone up in recent decades, the adults in this study overall had less time exposed to the effects of being overweight (statistically speaking, fewer of them were overweight in childhood). What happens to our kids when they reach 58?

Here’s a BMI calculator

Image: flickr/diofink

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