No one likes to think of themselves as unhealthy. And like so many other health conditions, excess weight takes its toll over a long period of time, over a span of years of aging. So it’s inevitable that many individuals feel good, participate fully in life, do not take any current medications, and feel pretty healthy, all in spite of excess weight. It leads a lot of people to describe themselves as healthy and obese. I frequently hear comments along the lines of, “My doctor told me I am the healthiest obese person he knows!” Or, even more suspect, “I may be 75 pounds overweight, but I am totally healthy.” But can you really be healthy and obese? Not according to the latest study.
Clarifying the Concept of Health
Health is not so easily characterized. It is not a simple snapshot of today. It’s not an instantly produced Polaroid that says I felt good this morning and went shopping and played with the dog; therefore I am healthy. Doctors must gauge “healthy” or “not healthy” on a longer arc. When we speak with someone about their health, we’re thinking questions such as “How long is this person likely to live?” or “What is this person’s chance of developing diabetes, sleep apnea, or a stroke or blood clot this year?”
It’s kind of like two different people enjoying a sunny afternoon in a peaceful floating canoe on a beautiful river. Health is not just about the immediate scenery – it’s about whether that river goes on in tranquilly for miles, or whether there is a precipitous waterfall with nothing but rocks at the bottom looming ahead.
A recent study published June 10, 2021, in the medical journal Diabetologia found that healthy obese people are not actually healthy. The study examines a large database of over 375,000 people and found that the risk of progressing to serious health conditions within three to five years was very high for obese individuals, compared to non-obese individuals. The authors, and numerous other experts, recommend that medical personnel drop the idea of “metabolically healthy obesity“ or “healthy obese“ altogether, since the terms are totally at odds with the data.
For many people who have enjoyed relatively good sense of well-being, these kinds of studies do come as something of a surprise. Sometimes the media, or friends and family, lead people to believe the impossible, namely that living with 50 or 100 extra pounds might not actually take a toll on one’s health. And we all struggle to escape recency bias, believing the things that have been happening lately are more likely to continue occurring in the future. I felt pretty good last week and the week before, so I must be healthy going forward. But science, data, and, I dare say, common sense, tell us otherwise.
Obesity is not at all a healthy condition. It may take years for it to exert the effects, but make no mistake, those effects are powerful and negative with respect to life expectancy, health, and quality of life. It is the primary health problem of our times, and responsible for more lost years of life than any other health condition today. And worse, it is an environmental disease caused by human activity, primarily through changes in the food supply.
Medical personnel, and indeed policymakers and governments, must work tirelessly if we are to overcome this devastating epidemic that wreaks such havoc upon wonderful people who do not deserve it. Correcting false notions about nonsense terms like “healthy obese” is a small but necessary step to marshal the immense forces required to battle this dreadful epidemic.