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Obesity Health Risks: Weight May Pose a Greater Health Risk than Smoking

Mar 27, 2008
A few years ago, I heard about a very disturbing survey. Unfortunately, I don't remember the statistical details, but I'll never forget the point. Someone asked a group of children in a US primary school if they would rather lose an arm or be fat. Some overwhelming percentage (I want to say close to 80 percent) said they would rather lose the arm. Think about that for a second. Our society places such a severe stigma on being overweight that 5-year-old children say they would rather give up an arm than be fat.

There's so much pressure around us to be thin that it's easy to forget that optimal body weight really is about our health, and not just our trouser size. But recently, a couple of new studies on health and weight confirmed that maintaining a healthy body weight is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves - and that letting it slide can be the most dangerous.

In one study, the American Medical Association reported that on average, obese people were found to have nearly twice the chronic health problems of people of normal weight. Keep in mind that obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more. (BMI is a mathematical formula that calculates the ratio of height to weight.) It was adopted by the National Institutes of Health in 1998 as the new gold standard in body weight.

BMI's of 18.5 to 24.9 are considered "normal," while values of 25 and over are considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher ranks as obese. According to the AMA study, about 56 percent of the American population falls into the overweight group. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 19.8 percent of Americans are obese. Before BMI was introduced, the old Metropolitan Life height-and-weight charts were the yardstick and body weights 20 percent or more above the recommended levels were considered obese. Here in the UK things aren't much better, as we're getting fatter as a nation and obesity rates are on the increase.

But it was the other study I found absolutely shocking. It was put out by the RAND Institute in Santa Monica and was published in the latest edition of the British journal "Public Health." Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the study consisted of a telephone survey of 9,585 adults who were asked about their weight, height, smoking and drinking habits, income, quality of life, and if they had any of 17 chronic health problems, including asthma, cancer, diabetes, and heart problems.

The researchers found that the obese people had slightly more health problems than people in poverty, and far more than daily smokers or heavy drinkers, indicating that obesity may be a much greater health risk. Honestly, I was dumb-founded. Smoking, heavy drinking, and poverty - these are three very strong, very negative forces with staggering effects on health. It seems almost unfathomable that being overweight could be more dangerous than they are. Obviously we aren't saying that smoking or heavy drinking are good for you, but thought the comparison was very powerful.

If you've tried to lose weight and feel like you've lost the struggle, I can sympathize. Weight is something I've struggled with most of my life. So please don't think I'm giving this advice lightly or think it's as easy as skipping a serving of potatoes. Being overweight is a complex physical, mental and emotional problem for most of us who struggle with it. But looking at these studies, I realize that the time has to be now. I don't want to wake up in 10 years and still be saying, "I'll start tomorrow."

In recent weeks, I've gotten back into an exercise routine that I'd been lax about, given up deserts, and stopped drinking all fizzy drinks - diet and regular.
Trust me. I know how hard it is. There are many mornings when I would rather push the snooze button than get up and get on that treadmill (today was one of them). And, as I said, I've given up a lot of my favorite foods recently. But it seems silly to have quit smoking years ago only to learn that a weight problem may end up being even more dangerous for me.

Let's stop putting it off until tomorrow and start today - right now. It's the absolute best thing we can do for ourselves - and the people who love us. And as those pounds come off (and they will!), you'll look great while doing something important for your health.
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