Drop your New Year's resolution to lose a few pounds. A new analysis of nearly 3 million people suggests that overweight people live slightly longer than people of normal weight.
Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control looked at subjects' body mass index, a mathematical formula relating height to weight, at the start of the research and assessed how likely they were to die by its end.
The finding, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, pooled data from 97 studies on men and women in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, India, and Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The data included 270,000 people who died of any cause during the studies. Those who were significantly obese, with a BMI of 35 or more, had shorter life spans than those of healthy weight, with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9. Significantly, obese people had a 29 percent higher risk of death, according to the studies.
However, those who were classified as overweight, with a BMI between 25 and 29.9, died at slightly lower rates than those with a healthy BMI. Those who were slightly obese, with a BMI of 30 to 34.9, died in no greater numbers than people of normal weight.
The survival edges were not large. Those who were overweight were 6 percent less likely to die during the studies than those with a normal BMI. Lead author Katherine M. Flegal, an epidemiologist with the CDC, said the findings were still statistically significant.
The study runs counter to advice almost any doctor has for patients: Overweight people are at risk for heart disease and diabetes, and therefore they carry a higher risk of premature death.
This isn't the first study that has said overweight people aren't at as high of a risk as previously thought.
The analysis didn't make any recommendations for doctors.
"Our goal is really to summarize existing information and not conclude what people should do, other than follow good health practices, no matter what their weight," Flegal said.
There are a range of possibilities for why this might be the case. Some doctors believe that people who are slightly overweight or have health problems like high cholesterol are more likely to be monitored by doctors and resolve health problems, thereby improving overall health. Others say overweight people are more likely to exercise and eat properly than people who starve themselves to be thin.
In addition, BMI isn't the be-all, end-all indicator of health, because people who are muscular and aren't overweight may have the same BMI as those who are.
Previous research Toronto's York University has indicated it may be better to stay fat than being constantly on a diet, according to The Daily Mail. A study of thousands of obese men and women found that more than a third were perfectly healthy or had only slight health problems.
Flegal said the findings provoked a lot of backlash.
"Our article got called rubbish and ludicrous," Flegal told NPR. "So it really opens you to lots of criticism."
Tam Fry, spokesman for the UK National Obesity Forum, told The Independent that people need to take their health seriously and to take the study with a grain of salt.
"The consequences of people taking this research and deciding 'let's eat and be merry' will be catastrophic," he said. "If people read this and decide they are not going to die [from overeating] they may find themselves lifelong dependents on medical treatment for problems affecting the heart, liver, kidney and pancreas — to name only a few."
Steven Hymsfield of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., told NPR there are a couple of scenarios in which extra body weight might help people live longer.
"If you fall and you fall on vulnerable bone, like the hip, having a little extra fat there might protect you from hip fracture," Hymsfield said.
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