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Article: "Why Harvard Wants You to be Unhealthily Thin"

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Old 09-17-2007, 09:02 PM   #1
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Default Article: "Why Harvard Wants You to be Unhealthily Thin"

This is an interesting article I found when reading an Opinion column in the LA Times. This is also an opinion article, but I thought it nicely illustrated the reason why studies shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value, and that how the data are filtered can affect the outcome. That said, I guess even this article shouldn't be taken as gospel. Anyway, I thought others might find it interesting as well.

http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w070910&s=campos091107
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Old 09-17-2007, 10:04 PM   #2
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Makes one wonder what the Harvard folks have to gain.
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Old 09-17-2007, 10:11 PM   #3
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Well, any research institution has a driving need to confirm or enforce belief in a problem. That means additional research money, which can attract professors and researchers to the school, which can mean greater tuitions, greater prestige, etc. If the number of people at high risk for health complications expands to include everyone who is 1) obese 2) overweight or even 3) at the high end of normal, the problem is much greater, thus more research money. If the risk of health complications only extends to people that are obese or at the high end of overweight, the problem is smaller and less research dollars are granted.

I find this very fascinating, because my current BMI is 25.8 - just 5 lbs above "normal" for my height. Those five WILL NOT COME OFF. Well, I'm sure they will eventually, but I feel like my body REALLY wants to stay at its current weight. I go off track for a few days, I may gain 2-3 in water but my body will go right back here. I am SUPER ON PLAN, maybe with a few extra workouts, for a few weeks and I may dip 3 below, but as soon as I return to my sustainable plan, it comes right back.

Maybe my body likes this spot because its a fairly healthy place to be, and I don't have to obsess over getting the last 5 off so I fit into some arbitrary "normal" category?
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Old 09-17-2007, 10:22 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mandalinn82 View Post
I find this very fascinating, because my current BMI is 25.8 - just 5 lbs above "normal" for my height. Those five WILL NOT COME OFF. Well, I'm sure they will eventually, but I feel like my body REALLY wants to stay at its current weight. I go off track for a few days, I may gain 2-3 in water but my body will go right back here. I am SUPER ON PLAN, maybe with a few extra workouts, for a few weeks and I may dip 3 below, but as soon as I return to my sustainable plan, it comes right back.

Maybe my body likes this spot because its a fairly healthy place to be, and I don't have to obsess over getting the last 5 off so I fit into some arbitrary "normal" category?

It makes the goal weight discussion all the more confusing and interesting, doesn't it? This article calls into question how "healthy" is defined. So what do we go by? How will we know when we get there?
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Old 09-17-2007, 10:41 PM   #5
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Where's a good epidemiologist when you need one!

Thanks for the link! I've heard of the Flegel study before and actually just read the piece in Scientific American alluded to in the article. I hadn't realized who the authors of that piece were.

From a quick read, it seems much of the issue involves who you choose to include in your dataset -- both the original participants and who you exclude at a later date (e.g., smokers or people with chronic illness). I do know that these issues really DO affect how we should interpret research. The article you linked to provided some nice, specific information that I actually felt I could follow. I'd love to read more on this when I have a chance, because it's not the kind of research I'm familiar with and I have to think things through more thoroughly!

Like Mandalinn, I'm hanging out in the overweight category. I'm NOT unhappy here either! Maybe it isn't threatening my health any either!

Thanks!
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Old 09-17-2007, 11:03 PM   #6
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When I found out my "ideal" weight for my height was 125/130 I was shocked. I have a pretty big frame, I think I would have to starve myself to get to 125. I would be happy at around 170 to 150, but I'll see what happens when I get there!

I found the article very interesting... it's funny, whenever you're wondering about why someone would have an agenda, all you really have to do is follow the money and you'll find your reason!
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Old 09-17-2007, 11:19 PM   #7
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I really don't think I could ever get to the low end of the BMI range for my height. A BMI of 20 would put me at 132 lbs. Currently, at 168 lbs, my body fat percentage is about 25-27%, depending how it is measured (thats considered in the "normal" range for women). That means I have 45 lbs of fat on me TOTAL. If I went to the low end of my BMI range, I'd have to either lose muscle (not healthy, not metabolically a positive thing, and generally not something I am interested in) OR I'd have to lose 36 lbs of body fat, leaving me with a grand total of 9 lbs and landing me at 6.8% body fat.

Essential body fat for women (ie, what you need to continue menstruation, continue normal body processes, etc) is 10-12%. I'd only have 2/3 of that!

Now I understand this isn't fully accurate because its impossible to lose all of that weight in fat, some of it would obviously have to be muscle. But thats just to get me to 20.0 BMI - the study says the low range starts at 18.5 (or, for me, 122 lbs, meaning I'd have to lose all of my fat AND some muscle to hit it...).
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Old 09-17-2007, 11:33 PM   #8
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It is an interesting article. It's all the more interesting because BMI is generally acknowledged to be a poor indicator of obesity. As Mandalinn points out, a very healthy person with a high percentage of muscle weighs considerably more than the same size person who has a high fat percentage, yet the more muscular individual is far more likely to be healthier. And, as Heather undoubtedly knows quite well because of her field, the general media rarely thoroughly review studies before reporting on them. It reminds me of that statistic regarding how unlikely it is for older women to get married that was so well-publicized in the '80s and '90s. The original media report was based on an incomplete study that was later exposed as having a high number of statistical errors. The problems were so pronounced, in fact, that the authors later refused to try to defend it. But because the Harvard name was attached, people accepted it without question.
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Old 09-18-2007, 02:30 AM   #9
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I loved that the article mentions the "obesity paradox," in which people in the "overweight" category (20-30 or so? pounds over "normal" BMI) mysteriously rank healthiest in several studies. Rather than wonder if their definition of normal (ideally, the normal recommended weight range would be the healthiest range) might need to be reconsidered, they instead label the phenomenon a paradox. Maybe Heather has some insight into this paradox business?
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Old 09-18-2007, 04:18 AM   #10
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I tell you, you just don't know who to believe. Two studies tell you this and three studies tell you that. I think the best person to believe has therefore got to be yourself.

Being morbidly obese and obese is completely different then being overweight. One can be in the "overweight" catergory while adhering to a 100% clean and healthy lifestyle. Meaning they get regular exercise and eat all the "right" foods. And one can be a "normal" weight, eat garbage, although probably not lots of it, and be inactive. Who's better off here? There's a lot more to a healthy body then what the scale says.
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Old 09-18-2007, 08:16 AM   #11
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You are all raising some great points! I'm not sure I have any insight into the paradox, but I’ll take a stab at it.

The answer may well be this: being overweight is bad for some people but okay for others. The problem is we haven’t fully identified the people in each group.

I always tell my students that if you want to sound savvy about research, one good question to ask about studies is: "How did they measure that?" In this case BMI is the answer (for one of the variables), and may not be the best measure at all (as Amy and LaurieDawn suggest)! What if they tried to use something like body fat percent? It may shed some light on the results!

The second question to ask is: “Who did they study?" You may find, for instance, that the population studied is a group of males over 50 with cancer. Do the results then apply to other populations? Who knows?

In this case, what if they have never really looked at people with certain kinds of habits (exercisers for instance). Maybe if you exercise regularly, being overweight is less of a problem than if you do not.

Sometimes if you start investigating the populations and the methods the research turns out to be less contradictory than it first appeared to be. The problem is, all of that takes time, and we want answers now!

But a big problem IS the media. Science never professes to answer any question with a single studies, or even a few. But the media frequently makes it sound like every study is definitive. NO single study is definitive. Ever.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything, or we never learn anything. I think if we take a step back, we can often see a big picture emerging. For instance, I recently read an article in Scientific American which suggested that, despite all the fads out there, the overall guidelines for a healthy lifestyle haven’t changed a whole lot in 50 years: eat lots of fruits, veggies, lean protein, and whole grains (remember the whole “oatmeal is amazing” trend a number of years back?) – and get regular exercise. Lots of research back up those claims and do continue to find benefits of these behaviors.
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Old 09-18-2007, 07:15 PM   #12
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Thank you for posting this, I have sent it to several people.
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Old 09-18-2007, 07:41 PM   #13
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Thank you for posting this.

I know, for myself, my goal is in the "overweight" range. We all have different body types. My frame is large (for real!). It has always been large. I am meant to have generous curves. It is in my makeup, I can't help my genes, and after decades of thinking I should be comparing myself against Hollywood ideals and insurance company weight charts, I have come to terms with that reality. I lived many years in the overweight category before becoming mordidly obese, and I was BRIMMING with health. I look forward to regaining that health, regardless of what the doctors would have me weigh.

I take after my father, who was big-framed and fighting against his weight, and he lived his life also brimming with health as he kept himself in the overweight category of BMI.
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Old 09-18-2007, 09:36 PM   #14
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Battleax, I'm with you.

My goal weight is still at least 10 lbs over what's considered "normal" for my height. It's not meant for me, genetically, to be super skinny. My dad has a large frame, and so do I. I would be happy to be 190 and healthy!
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