A Few Extra Pounds Won’t Kill You—Really

In a finding that could undermine many New Year’s resolutions, a new government study shows that people who are overweight are less likely to die in any given period than people of normal weight. Even those who are moderately obese don’t have a higher-than-normal risk of dying.

Being substantially obese, based on measure called body mass index, or BMI, of 35 and higher, does raise the risk of death by 29%, researchers found.

But people with a BMI of 25 to 30—who are considered overweight and make up more than 30% of the U.S. population—have a 6% lower risk of death than people whose BMI is in the normal range of 18.5 to 25, according to the study, being published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

People who had a BMI of 30 to 35—considered the first stage of obesity—had a 5% lower risk of dying, but those figures weren’t considered statistically significant.

Still, health experts said that Americans shouldn’t treat the new study as a license to eat more.

“That would be a mistake—and this study did show an increase in mortality for people who are obese,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the study. “I don’t think anyone would disagree with the basic fact that being more physically active and eating a healthier diet is very important for your health.”

The new report is the latest, and largest, to document what scientists call the “obesity paradox.” Other studies have shown that people with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions tend to live longer if they carry excess pounds even though excess weight is associated with heightened risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and several cancers which in turn raise the risk of premature death.

CDC researchers analyzed 97 studies involving nearly three million people and 270,000 deaths around the world. “The findings are very consistent across all different ages and continents,” said lead author Katherine Flegal, a senior scientist at the CDC. She stressed that the study looks at all causes of mortality, not overall health risks. “This is not meant to suggest that the conventional wisdom is wrong,” she said.

BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared. Someone who is 6 feet tall and 180 pounds would have a BMI of 24.4, considered normal; at 200 pounds, his BMI would be 27.1, or slightly overweight, and at 230, his BMI of 30 would be considered obese.

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