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Obesity may have some health benefits

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New studies say obesity may protect against heart disease.

We’ve all heard that being overweight can increase our risk for all sorts of health problems, but according to a couple of new studies, being fat may actually have some benefits, such as protection from death as a result of cardiovascular conditions.

These new studies may bring a sigh of relief to the 69 percent of American adults who are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But what about all those earlier studies that link those 69 percent with cardiovascular complications and other health problems?

Take the study published last year in JAMA, for example, which found that long-term obesity may lead to heart disease. And then there’s a more recent study showing that the main cause of death for those who are extremely obese is – you guessed it – heart disease.

Nevertheless, two new studies just published in the journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, challenge the findings of those earlier studies, saying that being overweight may instead offer protection against heart problems and other health conditions.

Indeed, in the first of these new studies, researchers found that overweight people had the “lowest all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk”. In other words, they had the least risk of dying from any cause, including cardiovascular disease.

Led by Dr. Abhishek Sharma, a cardiology fellow at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, researchers for the first study analyzed 36 earlier studies, reviewing patient outcomes for those with coronary artery disease (CAD) who had also undergone coronary revascularization procedures.

As a result, Dr. Sharma and the researchers discovered patients with a higher body mass index (BMI) were less prone to developing heart disease, whereas those with a low BMI had up to a 2.7-fold increased risk of suffering a heart attack and dying from it or related cardiovascular disease.

In fact, patients who were overweight had the least risk of dying from cardiovascular complications – and a 27 percent lower risk of dying from other disease, compared with their thin counterparts who had a normal BMI.

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So how do you explain this?

According to Dr. Sharma, overweight patients tend to be on more prescription medications, including statins and beta blockers, which help protect against cardiovascular disease. This could explain why those with a high BMI had better patient outcomes in terms of developing less cardiovascular problems.

Moreover, Dr. Sharma explained that overweight and obese patients tend to have a greater metabolic reserve, which could help protect them from chronic disease, such as CAD. He added that non-modifiable genetic factors might also play a role, including pathophysiological differences in cardiovascular disease between overweight and underweight patients.

In the second new study, conducted by lead researcher Dr. Carl Lavie at the University of Queensland School of Medicine in New Orleans, LA, he and his research team specifically explored the effect of body composition on BM and the mortality rates of 47,866 patients with more than 50 percent of their left ventricular system intact.

For this second study, the team showed that a higher BMI was linked to lower death rates. Participants with more lean body mass (mass of body minus fat) had a 29 percent reduced risk of death. It’s important to note that low body fat was linked to lower death rates only if there hadn’t been any adjustment made for lean body mass; thus, suggesting that body composition plays a crucial role when it comes to determining if being fat has any health benefits or not.

Dr. Lavie said that whenever you’re considering a potential health benefit of body fat, you should take into account lean mass index – because it quite possibly represents larger skeletal muscle mass – and, with a higher BMI, body fat is linked to a higher risk of mortality.


1. Relationship of Body Mass Index With Total Mortality, Cardiovascular Mortality, and Myocardial Infarction After Coronary Revascularization: Evidence From a Meta-analysis, Abhishek Sharma et al., published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 16 July 2014.

2. Body Composition and Mortality in a Large Cohort With Preserved Ejection Fraction: Untangling the Obesity Paradox, Carl J. Lavie et al., published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 16 July 2014.