Saturday, November 10, 2007

Beware: Nutrition Research can be Hazardous to your Health

You may have heard or read about the recent study on the risks of being overweight. The study, published on Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that being overweight is not as detrimental to your health as experts have been saying.

Wait a minute. What’s that you say? All this hype about the obesity epidemic is really just that: hype. The epidemic that, according to some economists, threatens to topple America’s health care system within the next 50 years, is not really a problem?

According to Walt Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, it’s a big problem. “It’s just ludicrous to say there is no increased risk of mortality from being overweight,” he told the Associated Press Wednesday, when asked about the study.

So why all of the confusion? Nutrition research, like all medical research, is not immune to human error or new discovery (which is, also, what makes it so exciting). The problem is that some people consider each new finding infallible, which sets them up for major disappointment. By the time they’ve purchased, prepared, and sat down to savor the latest food touted to prevent heart disease, they’ve just found out that it causes cancer.

What we need is more patience. Nutrition research is not a perfect science, but we do know this: the more studies that point to the same conclusion, the more likely that conclusion is true.

And we also know this:

Being overweight or obese does cause an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and certain types of cancer. The body of evidence pointing to this is overwhelming and does not contradict itself.

What the papers don’t tell us about the recent JAMA article is that it examines the association between weight and mortality, not weight and quality of life. Losing a limb to diabetes or going to dialysis 3 days a week may not kill us, but it certainly decreases our quality of life. (There is, also, plenty of literature linking overweight to diabetes and kidney disease and, subsequently, to increased mortality; it is ludicrous to suggest otherwise). The other thing the media neglects to mention is that the study highlights how being overweight protects us against tuberculosis, emphysema, and pneumonia. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing a lot more about heart attacks in 21st century America than I have been about tuberculosis. (And I can think of a much easier and cheaper way to ward off emphysema than becoming overweight).

So, can you still have that Starbucks almond-filled croissant and triple-grande Carmel Macchiato you’ve been avoiding?

Of course you can, but I would recommend you do so in moderation. (Half of the croissant and a single-tall Carmel Macchiato might also do the trick if you enjoy them mindfully and, on other days of the week, you might want to try something like a bowl of oatmeal with blueberries and almonds along with a cup of coffee. For more tips on the meaning of moderation and mindfulness as they relate to nutrition and some healthier breakfast ideas, go to

And, remember, don’t forget to read critically.

Contributed by Monica Van Winkle, MS, RD


Ender Wiggin said...
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Ender Wiggin said...

Thank you, Monica, for the post! It was really helpful.

I think people latch on to articles such as that in the JAMA because they tell us what we want to hear and allow us to continue putting off the hard decisions we, deep down, know we have to make. (It seems kind of similar to the climate change debate actually, where the mass of evidence points to the need for big change but people latch on to the one-off study that refutes one small aspect of the claim.)

People don't change their behavior easily. It does require patience and people like you and Emily who are knowledgeable and sincere to continue to inform others in as straightforward a manner as they can about the risks of taking the easy way out. So thank you. I look forward to reading more.