The Second Half: Overeat to live longer?

I exercise. Not enough, but I do exercise. I can’t stand running or sweating, but I love to walk—long, brisk walks on country roads in lovely weather, my own special meditation time. I am not a couch potato, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time in front of my computer, writing or sitting by a window, reading. I can do either for hours, without food or drink or companionship.

And I eat. Too much, and often the wrong things like ice cream, but I eat with great gusto and very little discrimination. I love the finest foods such as beef wellington, but simple meatloaf is wonderful, too. Growing up in a large family post-WWII, my mother promoted eating “everything on your plate because kids are starving in (insert name of poor country here).” I have a vague recollection of refusing to eat something, probably liver, and sitting in a dark dining room until bedtime watching my food curdle as my mother commanded, “You’ll sit there until you eat it…we don’t waste food in this house!” But refusal to eat was rare—we played outside until exhaustion, we labored at chores and yard work, and we ate with a dedication to refueling our bodies.

So you might be surprised to learn I worry about my weight every single day. I recall very few moments in my life when I said: “Wow, I love my body! I’m in such great shape!” Honestly, I don’t ever remember saying or thinking that, but I hope I did at some point. That is why I read, with great relish, the recent research linking both underweight and obesity to early death. As they say at Wrigley Field, I’m SAFE!

The study I found was conducted by researchers with Statistics Canada, McGill University, and the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research and funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and the Canadian Embassy. It appeared in a June 2009 edition of the online journal, Obesity, and was written up on one of my favorite Web sites, WebMD (Study: Overweight People Live Longer, WebMD Health News, by Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD, June 25, 2009).

According to this research, people who were overweight actually lived longer than people of normal weight, based on body mass index (BMI). I never understood the concept of BMI, so I looked it up on, my fun place to research interesting tidbits:

BMI is a numeric measure of a person’s “fatness” or “thinness” in sedentary folks with an average build. It seems the term was originally coined in the 19th century, but became popularized by Ancel Keys in 1972. Keys was interested in measuring body fat since obesity was becoming a big issue in prosperous Western cultures. Anyway, Keys was adamant that BMI was appropriate for population studies and inappropriate for individual diagnosis, but it was simple to calculate, and that’s what we like—easy answers.

I found a Web site called that has a nifty calculator. You plug in your height, weight, age, and gender, and it gives you your BMI number and weight category. I was a little disappointed to find an advertisement for weight loss products there, but the calculator is cool and free, so I forgive them.

Back to the study that shows overweight people live longer…they called this interesting and encouraging fact the “obesity paradox.” How does it work?

OK, here’s the calculation for a 5-foot, 5-inch adult:

• Underweight at 110 pounds or less (BMI <18.5)

• Normal weight at 111 to 149 pounds (BMI = 18.5-24.9)

• Overweight at 150 to 179 pounds (BMI = 25-29.9)

• Obese at 180 to 210 pounds (BMI = 30-34.9)

• Extremely obese at 211 pounds or more (BMI = 35 or greater)

Here are the stats for the study group people:

• Underweight were 73 percent more likely to die.

• Extremely obese with BMI of 35 or greater were 36 percent more likely to die.

• Obese with BMI 30-34.9 had about the same risk of death.

• Overweight with BMI 25-29.9 were 17 percent less likely to die.

This isn’t the first time this result came up: CDC researchers found the same thing in a 2005 study, and recently a separate report found overweight heart patients live longer than lean ones (insert Hubby cheering here).

So what do we get from this? Well, the study is about survival, not quality of life, so it is possible that overweight folks live longer but not as well. And underweight folks tend to be a bit frail as they age, so I can see how they could be at risk of dying earlier. Maybe when we are identified as overweight, we get more aggressive treatment, like blood thinners and cholesterol medicine, and our attention becomes more focused on health stuff.

According to WebMD, David Feeny, Ph. D., co-author of the study, there are theories but no hard evidence to explain why being overweight may increase longevity. He suggests lifestyle choices—eating well, exercising regularly, managing stress, and treating risk factors for chronic disease—may be more important than moderate weight loss.

A friend said it nicely: “I think we are meant to enjoy life; if that means I eat a little too well sometimes, it’s a small price to pay.”

My Second Half of Life Plan: eat joyfully and take long walks.

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at

from the July 29-August 4, 2009, issue

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