Overweight people live longer; yeah right!

At one point, right on the front page of every newspaper and news outlet was “Overweight People Live Longer." Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and they are generally aware excess fat on the body is not healthy.  So when word of a study like the one on body mass index (BMI) categories and mortality starts spreading through the news outlets, everyone listens, and many take the conclusions to be fact. Sadly this kind of news coverage does a disservice to an already overweight and misguided public, allowing them to believe that their excess body fat won’t harm them and influence many to maintain or add some pounds.  I wonder how much more breast cancer and how many needless deaths this information will cause. 

This was a meta-analysis, pooling data from different studies that analyzed death from all causes with consideration of various BMI categories (normal weight: 18.5 – 24.9; overweight: 25.0 – 29.9; obesity: 30 or greater). The researchers found a small (6 percent) reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality for overweight compared to normal weight individuals, and an 18% increase in risk for obese compared to normal weight individuals.1

Does that mean almost every study on fitness, and the benefits of dietary excellence in the last 40 years was wrong?  So, should we nutritarians pack on some extra pounds, exercise less, eat some cheese doodles and lounge on the couch watching more TV, so we can live longer?  Hah, and the moon is made of green cheese too.  This paper found an association here between lower BMI and a slight decrease in mortality rate, but for a variety of reasons, this is bad science and should never have been reported.

This study is essentially worthless because it did not exclude people with chronic disease recorded at baseline.  Sick people become thinner.  It is well known that illnesses cause a lower body weight.  The American diet is so disease-causing and weight-promoting that almost all relatively healthy people become overweight, leaving mostly the chronically ill and those with occult illnesses (not yet diagnosed) at a normal or near normal weight. 

A number of medical conditions may cause unintentional weight loss, including depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, autoimmune diseases, occult cancer and digestive disorders. What proportion of the normal weight group had one or more of these conditions?  The study did not say, but the list below suggests that it’s a large proportion of those in the normal weight category.   The fact is, the American diet is so fattening and unhealthy that if someone is eating the American diet and is not overweight, they most likely have something wrong with them. Below is a list of conditions that cause weight loss, and the estimated prevalence of these conditions in the general population:

  • Alcoholism – 12.5%.2
  • Anxiety disorders - 18%.3
  • Asthma - 7.7%.4
  • Autoimmune Disorders – 7.6-9.4% 5
  • Celiac disease – 1%.6
  • COPD – 5.1%.4
  • Depression – 8%.7
  • Drug addiction – 2.6%.8
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome – 10%.9

Depression, Anxiety and Alcoholism alone could account for the findings in this study and affect about 20 percent of the population.  Plus, the study did not consider subclinical disease, in other words, medical problems that have not yet been diagnosed.  For example, there are many with some hidden cancer, not yet diagnosed (called occult cancer) that keeps them thin.  Studies like this always underestimate the impact of overweight and obesity on premature mortality. 

Plus, the only measured outcome was all-cause mortality.  We still see increasing mortality from diabetes and heart disease as weight increases and the increased mortality in the normal weight group was from more unusual causes.  We also know that the overweight live a lower quality life – with heart disease, arthritis, or another lifestyle-related disease or disability. Excess weight is known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, liver disease, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, arthritis, and impotence and infertility.10 Let’s not ignore all that.  

In the end, what we can conclude from this study is that many researchers are confused about health and nutrition and because of that their work can just add more confusion.   With the majority of Americans significantly overweight many must be rejoicing in line at those fast food joints after hearing this news.  So please don’t skip the gym and head out to Dunkin Donuts tonight for some deep fried flour and sugar with artificial colorings and flavorings.  There is no getting around, you are what you eat.    



1. Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, et al: Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA 2013;309:71-82.
2. Hasin DS, Stinson FS, Ogburn E, et al: Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence in the United States: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2007;64:830-842.
3. National Institute of Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/complete-index.shtml. Accessed January 3, 2013.
4. Akinbami LJ, Moorman JE, Bailey C, et al: Trends in asthma prevalence, health care use, and mortality in the United States, 2001-2010. NCHS Data Brief 2012:1-8.
5. Cooper GS, Bynum ML, Somers EC: Recent insights in the epidemiology of autoimmune diseases: improved prevalence estimates and understanding of clustering of diseases. J Autoimmun 2009;33:197-207.
6. Talluri SK, Besur S, Talluri J: Abstract #74: A Population-Based Survey of Celiac Disease in the United States. In 2012 National Conference on Health Statistics; 2012.
7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: FastStats. Depression [http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/depression.htm]
8. Compton WM, Thomas YF, Stinson FS, et al: Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV drug abuse and dependence in the United States: results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2007;64:566-576.
9. El-Serag HB: Impact of irritable bowel syndrome: prevalence and effect on health-related quality of life. Rev Gastroenterol Disord 2003;3 Suppl 2:S3-11.
10. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Overweight and Obesity Causes and Consequences. [http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/adult/causes/index.html]

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Comments (9) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Joseph McMahon - January 5, 2013 12:29 PM

It is a tragedy that humans would deceive their fellow man for profit, leaving behind a slime trail of sick and diseased people for the medical industry to prey upon and pick their bones clean... It is a vicious circle. I have never so strongly believed that people need to take "individual" responsibility to educate themselves about nutrition then I do now. Their lives and the lives of their loved ones depend on it. This will not be solved through good government, "conscious media" or the "awakening" of the food industry...

linda - January 5, 2013 12:36 PM

confused.... first off I think that you are right. But it is confusing to have other Dr's, also on Dr Oz... touting the same effects from "their" diets that include meats cheese pasta etc. They say that they have the research to prove it also.... like the paleo diet at this time. I guess I would like to think that there is "one" right path to take.

Nutrinurse - January 5, 2013 2:02 PM

Thank you for addressing this flawed study. I would appreciate a detailed critique of the science if one is available. This was published in my local newspaper as "pleasantly plump"people live longer, accompanied by a photo of someone quite obese. Makes me both sad and angry for everyone duped.

Terry Czyz - January 5, 2013 2:20 PM

Great article. I.m into the Nutritarian life style. I lost 3 lbs over the holidays. I enjoy making new meals and salads with g-bombs in mind !! (:>}) .

Michael Crosby - January 5, 2013 3:23 PM

Thank you so much for the rejoinder to such a foolish article.

And you wonder why Americans keep getting fatter and fatter.

I would venture to say that most of those reading your review will be more aware than the masses reading “Overweight People Live Longer".

People will believe this nonsense along with idea that oil is heart healthy and of course protein only comes from meat and dairy.

Steven & Rhonda McDonald - January 5, 2013 3:50 PM

Dr. Fuhrman,

My wife and I were fat Vegans, until we joined the Nutritarian lifestyle. Massive weight loss, huge energy gain, and vast improvement in all our blood tests. We laughed too when we read the headlines about overweight people living longer. We know we were unhealthy and unhappy the more weight we carried, your book "Eat To Live" saved our lives. People who believe that fat is healthy should ask themselves how many overweight people do they see thriving in senior care facilities? My wife tells people she feels better at 50 than she ever felt in her 30's. The proof is in the results, and you sir have gotten it right. We both want to thank you for not only saving our lives, but for giving us our lives back. God Bless you and your work.

Steven & Rhonda McDonald

Jennifer B - January 5, 2013 10:47 PM

Again! My thanks to Dr. Fuhrman for clarifying the science of nutrition. I found the "Overweight people live longer" articles maddening. Its just crazy.

Robert Turek - January 6, 2013 7:59 AM

Dr. Furman I have been reading the blog with intrest and I am so convinced in your acurate information I just started your six week plan 1/1/13. I already have seen improvement in how I feel. Your plan is the right one for me and probably most Americans if they would try it out. You have possibly the best information to give our country on living a healthy lifestyle disease reduction and a dramatic decrease in healthcare costs and I feel your imput is needed to congress and the senate. Thank you for all you are doing to improve our health.Sincerely Robert Turek

Scott - January 7, 2013 9:53 PM

Wow, how absolutely ridiculous is this? What a waste of time and resources this study was. And shame on all the media outlets who decided to publish the story just to draw readers and make a profit. Most healthy eating principles come down to common sense. If it sounds like b.s., it probably is. Thanks Dr. Fuhrman for taking a stand and setting the record straight.

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