Perhaps the ‘Freshman 15’ isn’t so bad after all. A new study from researchers from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) found that “people who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight.” Further, those who are very thin on the Body Mass Index, which is a ratio based on one’s height and weight, regardless of sex, actually have a slight increase in the risk of death. The largest increase, though, was found to be for those who are extremely obese, although this group makes up only eight percent of Americans. This study is important because it flies in the face of a study last March which warned that overweight and obesity were causing an extra 400,000 (later refined to 365,000) deaths per year, making obesity second only to smoking as a cause of preventable deaths. This most recent study, though,estimates that 112,000 deaths are caused by obesity and extreme obesity, but that overweight is preventing 86,000 deaths per year. This net total, about 26,000 deaths, is actually smaller in comparison to the estimated 34,000 extra deaths caused by being underweight. These findings are not entirely conclusive, though, because, according to Dr. Donna Stroup of the CDC,”Counting deaths is not an exact science.”
In terms of response to this study, Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, states, “The take-home message from this study…is unambiguous: what is officially deemed overweight these days is actually the optimal weight.” Although some scientists have outright denied the findings of these scientists, the study itself is viewed by many independent sources to be “the most rigorous yet on the effects of weight,” and it even used the government’s own weight categories. Some scientists criticized the report because, as Dr. Stroup notes, “Mortality really only represents the tip of the iceberg of the magnitude of the problem.” Although she believes the study is a”step forward” for science and nutrition, she is cautious because it only takes into account deaths, and that the CDC believes that illnesses caused from obesity are as important as the total number of deaths. Others posit that, in a country where image and appearance are tantamount, findings that suggest that ultra-thin bodies aren’t necessarily healthy is a breath of fresh air for many Americans. As one commentator noted, it is a “long-needed reality check” on America’s ” near-hysteria over fat.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What is a healthy weight? How does one decide what his or her own optimal weight should be?
2. Do accept this article and study at face value, or do you think there is a need for balance between the emphasis on being too thin and the tendency to become obese?
3. Do those who are heavy tend to be looked down on or ridiculed in our society?How do they need to be affirmed?
4. What effects could this study have on eating habits of Americans?
5. What effects could this study have on the diet industry?
6. How should youth workers use the results of this study when ministering to kids?
7. Does the church have a role to play in body image issues? If so, what does that role look like?
8. Is this something that should be discussed more with girls or boys, or both,especially considering the rapid rise of male eating disorders?
9. What should youth workers do for kids who are extremely obese or extremely underweight?
For teens, male and female, this report might take some of the pressure off in regards to appearance. For years, as New York Times columnist John Tierney jokes in a recent article, the “emaciated ascetics”(dietitians, scientists, health gurus) have “used the ‘obesity epidemic’ as an excuse to attack the flabby.” In a culture where being fat is not only ridiculed but is also synonymous with dying, a study debunking this claim could be a load off the shoulders of youth struggling with a maturing body. Sure, obesity is an issue, and McDonald’s food is certainly exacerbating this problem as it targets “customers” at ever younger ages. This study, though, shows teens that their natural body type might in fact be the healthiest form for them, and they shouldn’t have to worry about trying to work off those”extra five pounds.” For females, Tierney also notes that four-fifths of human societies have traditionally viewed a more pear-shaped body to be the female ideal. In our Brittney Spears culture and increasingly homogenized “beauty” industry, where hips are shunned nearly as often as morality, this is a shocking claim.
For parents, this study might be a wake-up call for them to stop undue pressure on their sons and daughters to lose extra pounds–pressure often perceived by teens as a sign they are unable to match up to their parents’ expectations. Parents should understand that teens’ bodies are maturing, and that weight can fluctuate as hormones are raging and diets are in flux. Certainly, parents must look out for warning signs of eating disorders and also to watch for obesity, but they must do so in a way that doesn’t make their children feel inadequate.
Youth workers, especially those involved in church ministries, have opportunity to show kids how much they are loved, no matter how much they weigh. Church leaders could buttress their arguments for Christians to adhere to an alternative reality, one devoid of American materialism, by telling students that what matters is who they are as a child of God, not who they appear to be in a world of plastic and Botox. Essentially, as Glassner notes, this study allows us to re-evaluate what “normal” weight looks like, which youth workers can use when counseling a child dealing with severe insecurity about their weight and feelings of being”different.” Leaders should not be handing out Krispy Kremes, but they should affirm students as special and different creations all in the image of God. Furthermore, they can be free from social mandates to change into the image of Brittney, Christina or any other celebrity. This study could be used to back up such teaching. “You were created in the image of God, and you are healthier when you are in your natural weight.”