Sally Engelhart | A little flab provides some food for thought
Don't stress - the Freshman 15 might not be all that bad
September 12, 2009, 12:16 am · Updated September 11, 2009, 12:00 am·
Like many young women at Penn, I go to the gym so I can look good, feel good and, presumably, live a longer and healthier life. So when I read a Canadian study claiming that having a little extra junk in your trunk may help you live longer, I was a little skeptical. Who honestly wants to call muffin top her friend?
It's certainly a compelling study: More than 11,000 adults from all BMI weight categories were tracked for a 12-year period. Looking at the number of deaths in each weight class, researchers calculated "all-cause" death for participants.
And the surprising - to me, at least - conclusion was that overweight individuals (BMI 25-29.9) actually had the lowest risk of dying: They were less likely to die within the 12-year study span than obese, average and underweight people.
More surprising results: the underweight had the highest likelihood of death, leading researchers to believe that a few extra pounds may offer protective health benefits. And the results aren't just a bad Canadian joke - they're backed by similar reports from the (American) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute that associate life-extending health benefits with a few extra pounds. Needless to say, this complicates the prevalent concern about Americans' battles with the bulge.
I asked some Penn students whether they would be willing to change their lifestyle and pack on a few pounds, in light of these developments.
They said no.
Sophomore Lexi Udeh phrased it well: "I want to live the best life I can while I'm living it."
While my survey was admittedly unscientific, I'd be willing to extrapolate that most students would put the short-term benefits of being slim and fit ahead of the long-term opportunity to live a few extra years. Although commentors did mention the importance of feeling good, both male and female students emphasized the advantages of looking good and being socially accepted.
Still, the temptation to run to Ben & Jerry's after hearing these results can be overwhelming. Before you do, though, I should warn you that for every study that arrives at one outcome, there's another study that comes to the opposite conclusion.
For instance, after researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that rhesus monkeys fed an intense calorie-restrictive diet lived longer than other monkeys, some scientists claimed that the key to longevity was a life of half-starvation.
But I think we can all agree that a life of celery and soy crisps is no life at all.
The thinking behind these counterintuitive findings, according to Canadian study author David Feeny, is that heavier individuals may be able to reap protective benefits from their extra pounds because the harmful health conditions associated with their weight, like high blood pressure and diabetes, are treated by medication.
And although I am utterly grateful for a scientific study that helps me justify some of my more indulgent behaviors (transforming a bag of M&Ms; into a healthy snack) I too remain skeptical of the study's message.
It is hard to question numbers - the raw data and statistical analysis of this study are flawless - but the methods are definitely subject to challenge.
For one, the study followed subjects for 12 measly years, arguably not long enough to see the big picture or make long-term mortality predictions.
For another, the authors of the study underplayed the fact that the risk of death posed to each weight category differed based on the age of the subject. For example, being underweight didn't increase the risk of death for younger subjects aged 25-59.
And finally, this study looked at "all-cauwse death." It tells us nothing about what these individuals were dying from. Were obese people dying of heart disease, or were they struck by lighting? When you're looking at risk of all-cause death, things tend to get a little more abstract.
So while I'm acknowledging the study, I'm taking it with a (low-sodium) grain of salt. And though I'm not quitting the gym just yet, it is nice to hear that the Freshman 15 may just help save our lives.
Sally Engelhart is a College sophomore from Toronto. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org