Well, it turns out that the adage, "You can never be too rich or too thin," is only half true.
In a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers found that those who were either underweight or obese had higher death rates than those in the normal range. Perhaps that's not such a surprise. But the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) researchers also say overall mortality is reduced if you are a bit overweight.
(That is, if your "body mass index" is 25-30. Obese people, with BMIs over 30, still face greater health risk.)
You know those extra few pounds you'd like to lose? Well, it turns out that, while they won't prevent you from getting a disease, they might nonetheless keep you alive longer.
Carrying around a few extra pounds led to lower death rates from Parkinson's, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments, Alzheimer's and assorted diseases and injuries.
Question is: How will the public health community digest this latest news? If the past is any evidence, they might need some Rolaids.
In 2005, CDC researchers discovered they had overestimated death rates linked to obesity by nearly four-fold. They quietly acknowledged the error -- but CDC chief Dr. Julie Gerberding said she wouldn't use the new, lower mortality rate in anti-obesity publicity campaigns. Why should the new facts get in the way of using the more frightening numbers, regardless of their accuracy?
It gets worse. When a study pointed to (weak) evidence that red-meat consumption causes colon cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research put out a press release titled "AICR Welcomes Further Evidence that Red Meat Causes Colon Cancer." Nobody blinked.
But why would that be "welcome" news? If new evidence suggested that red meat didn't cause cancer (and there's plenty of evidence that leans that way), would AICR find that news unwelcome? I sometimes fear so. It seems news that suggests we can relax about a problem is never greeted with quite the same fanfare as bad news.
Given the new evidence that being slightly overweight may increase longevity, will the public-health community begin lifesaving campaigns to get underweight people to gain weight? Will Sen. Hillary Clinton's health plan offer food vouchers so "normal weight" people can add a few pounds? I doubt it.
Yet the public-health community has undertaken more expensive campaigns based on weaker scientific evidence than this. The difference is, those other campaigns were politically correct, "environmental" ones -- such as pointlessly spending hundreds of millions of dollars to remove PCBs from the Hudson River in the name of fighting cancer.
Time and again, many in the public-health community turn out to be less concerned with helping us live longer, healthier lives than with promoting a lifestyle they think is "right," the facts be damned.