The Atlantic

Why Scientists Can’t Agree on Whether It’s Unhealthy to Be Overweight

Some studies show being overweight leads to a greater risk of death; others show it doesn’t. Here’s what’s really going on.
Source: Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty

Is being a little bit overweight bad for you? Could it lead to an untimely death?

It’s a question with real consequences. Many overweight people feel locked in a fruitless battle with their size. If they do slim down, the process might distort their metabolisms forever. But if they remain overweight, non-thin people may face intense prejudice and stigma, as the writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner poignantly described in The New York Times Magazine recently:

I was in Iceland, for a story assignment, and the man who owned my hotel took me fishing and said, ‘‘I’m not going to insist you wear a life jacket, since I think you’d float, if you know what I mean.’’ I ignored him, and then afterward, back on land, after I fished cod like a Viking, he said, ‘‘I call that survival of the fattest.’’

The “health at every size” movement, though, has its own pitfalls, and not just because it can come off as oddly objectifying. American life expectancy recently dipped slightly, and obesity might be part of the cause. Telling people it’s perfectly fine to be dozens of pounds overweight would be terrible advice—if it’s wrong.

Most researchers agree that it’s unhealthy. They don’t really know why being very overweight is bad for you, but the thinking is that all those fat cells disrupt how the body produces and uses insulin, leading to elevated glucose in the blood and, eventually, diabetes. Extra weight also increases blood pressure, which can ultimately damage the heart.

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