Study: Metabolic Health More Important Than a Healthy Weight

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New research suggests being obese alone may not be a bad thing. U.S. and European researchers published a report in the European Heart Journal saying overweight and obese people face the same likelihood as healthy weight people of developing or dying from cancer or heart disease, as long as they are considered metabolically fit.

The researchers studied data from more than 43,265 people in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study from 1979 and 2003. All participants completed questionnaires about their medical history and lifestyle and underwent a physical exam, blood tests, and treadmill tests to measure their fitness. Participants were categorized as metabolically healthy if regardless of weight they did not have diabetes, had good cholesterol, high triglycerides, no insulin resistance, and healthy blood pressure. Almost 50 percent of obese people in the study were considered metabolically fit.

People who were obese but metabolically fit faced a 38 percent lower risk of untimely death. Actually, individuals who were overweight but fit had the same death risk as normal weight, metabolically healthy people.

This finding counters general wisdom that weight is indicative of overall health and physical fitness. Weight is a major issue if a person is metabolically unhealthy. But if a person is healthy other than their weight, this study suggests that is actually okay.

This study is in line with some other research released recently, including a study that found where weight is distributed is more important in predicting early death than being obese overall. In that study, people of normal weight who had a belly–a paunch–were twice as likely to have an early death as people with no excess weight in their midsection. In fact, people with fat concentrated in the belly were more at risk of an early death than people who are obese but whose fat was spread evenly throughout the body.

Another previous study found that of type 2 diabetes patients, obese patients actually lived longer than their thinner peers.

Metabolic fitness might be a game changer. Physical fitness, regardless of weight, is a huge predictor for metabolic health. Muscles are the body’s biggest consumer of sugar and are incredibly important for metabolic function like regulating blood sugar levels. In short, metabolically healthy bodies, regardless of weight, are better at maintaining blood sugar and therefore are less likely to develop insulin resistance, leading to diabetes.

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