Disease Proof

Being just overweight, not obese, still shortens lifespan

It is becoming more widely known that obesity can lead to a premature death – but what about those who fall in between healthy weight and obese?  A 2010 study suggested that even “a few extra pounds” can be dangerous.

This study was published just a few months after another large study that concluded that waist circumference was associated with risk of death from all causes. These two studies used different methods of measurement, but they agree on a very important point – even a small amount of excess weight increases the risk of death. In the waist circumference study, even people who had a normal body mass index (BMI; calculated based on height and weight) were at greater risk of death if they had a 4-inch larger waist compared to others in their BMI category – that four extra inches of abdominal fat translated into a 16% (men) and 25% (women) increase in mortality risk over a nine year period.

Last week, another article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in which the researchers analyzed risk of death from all causes according to BMI. The data they analyzed came from 19 different studies and included 1.46 million people across the U.S., Europe and Australia. The results were dramatic. The risk of death from all causes was elevated just above the ‘normal’ BMI category and continued to climb as BMI increased. Those who were overweight but not obese were still at risk.

Compared to individuals with BMI of 20-24.9, the increased risk of death was

  • 13% for those with BMI 25.0-29.9
  • 44% for those with BMI 30.0-34.9
  • 88% for those with BMI 35.0-39.9
  • 251% for those with BMI 40.0-49.9[1]

Of course, the risk is greater with more excess weight, but the key finding is that even with a moderate amount of excess weight, there is a significant increase in the risk of death.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and about half of this group fall into the overweight but not obese category. These studies would therefore suggest that 68% of Americans are dying prematurely because of their excess weight. The prevalence of processed foods and junk food has gotten most Americans completely out of touch with hunger and satiety signals. Nutrient-dense eating, resulting in the recognition of true hunger, is an effective method for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.


1. Berrington de Gonzalez, A., et al., Body-mass index and mortality among 1.46 million white adults. N Engl J Med, 2010. 363(23): p. 2211-9.


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Comments (7) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Stephanie - December 9, 2010 8:47 AM

Deana, is this study controlling for what people are eating?

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - December 9, 2010 10:06 AM

No, the authors controlled for physical activity, smoking, and a few other factors, but not dietary patterns.

Annie - December 9, 2010 10:52 AM

Well thanks. I just lost 19 lbs going to a BMI of 26.4. I have a pear shape, nice waist, and am looking good... was thinking I could slow it down. Thanks for the extra motivation to lose another 10-15 lbs.

Monica - December 9, 2010 8:24 PM

Annie - Don't slow it down. Even when we get to our ideal weight you should continue to Eat for Health to obtain the healthiest happiest you! Try not to think of it as a short-term diet only used when you need to drop a clothing size. Treat it as a permanent lifestyle change!

best wishes,

MIke Rubino - December 10, 2010 5:26 AM

Dr F wants very little body fat around ones waist for health reasons . He is the only doctor I have been to who takes out a tape measurer and actually measures it. Theres no hiding there.

Beth - December 12, 2010 7:02 PM

I remember reading that my ETL weight is MUCH lower than what the recommended weight ranges are. My BMI would go from 23.5/24.1 (not sure of my exact weight) to 19.1. Is that necessary?

I guess my point is, is it about BMI? Or, is it about the actual weight? I haven't weighed 115 since junior high, and that would necessitate losing about 25-30 pounds. Yet, my BMI is "good"--according to the BMI calculators.


Kelley - January 3, 2011 11:37 AM

I just stumbled upon an article in the NY Times from last year that took data from a 12 year study of more than 11,000 people. There is so much information from so many resources I never know what to believe anymore.


Should we or shouldn't we strive to be at a "normal" BMI weight or are there really just too many variables to assume 1 bill fits all. The whole rating system probably needs an overhaul.


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