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Fat may make you live longer, but not better

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  January 9, 2013 06:54 AM

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obesity.jpg It's enough to make you tear out your hair--or run to the refrigerator. Just when you've made your New Year's resolution to lose weight, pulled the laundry off your treadmill, and replaced the egg nog with Crystal Light, an article comes out showing that being overweight may actually make you live longer.

The article, which appeared last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pooled data from dozens of studies, and concluded that while obesity does shorten lives, overweight does not--and may even make us live longer. (To see whether you are, by current standards, underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese, check here).

The JAMA article prompted this New York Times op-ed piece, titled "Our Absurd Fear of Fat," alleging that our national obsession with weight and health professionals' hand wringing about the "obesity epidemic" are misplaced--and even economically motivated. The more people we define as having a medical condition, the editorialist argues, the better for us.

So should you hang the wash back on the treadmill and get back on the couch?
Not so fast.

What the JAMA study doesn't address, and what the op-ed piece conveniently ignores, is that longevity isn't the only measure of health. When people lose enough weight to move from the "overweight" range to "normal," their blood pressure, blood sugar, GERD (heartburn) symptoms, sleep, mood, sexual function, skin conditions, arthritis, breathing, and cholesterol all frequently improve--sometimes enough to allow them to stop taking medications.

Furthermore, even in the absence of weight loss, exercise and healthy diet (increased fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein) improve health. As it happens, the physician who pioneered this concept, former Massachusetts General Hospital chief of medicine Alexander Leaf, died just a few days before the JAMA article appeared.

He was 92.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »

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