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Whatever Has Happened to 'Pleasingly' Plump?

Those whose body mass index is a tad above 25 wonder if they're really putting their health at risk. Some experts say fitness matters more.

June 27, 2004|Daniel Q. Haney | Associated Press Writer

Riding to the mall one Saturday, Joanne Ikeda's younger sister turned to her and asked, out of nowhere, "Do you know that I am now overweight?"

From heart-sinking personal experience, millions upon millions of people can imagine exactly what led to that admission. She had stepped on the scales and noticed a number a little north of usual. So she looked it up on a body mass index chart. And -- no! -- she was officially too heavy.

Not obese, not even close. But her BMI was 26, a full point above the carved-in-stone cutoff for being overweight.

There is little doubt among mainstream health professionals that being truly obese is a health hazard. But what about the borderline plump? The mildly pudgy? All those with BMIs between 25 and 29, who according to the charts are overweight?

Government health agencies often lump all degrees of overweight together, noting for instance that more than 60% of Americans are too heavy. But more than half of these people -- roughly one-third of all Americans and 800 million people worldwide -- are overweight but not obese.

Many are like Ikeda's sister, Irene Pakel: 55 years old, 5-foot-3, weight in the mid-140s, maybe 10 pounds or so into the overweight category. Does she have a weight problem, one that might even shorten her life?

To many in the field, the answer is clear.

"Over 99% of experts throughout the world are convinced by overwhelming data that being overweight is a huge problem indeed for the majority of the world," said Dr. Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force in London.

But as co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley, Ikeda has a professional, though somewhat contrarian, opinion: Not likely.

"She's very physically fit," Ikeda said. "She goes to Curves every day after work. To look at her, you would say, 'Here is someone who is not even slightly chubby.' "

Ikeda has a weight problem of her own. Her BMI is 33, which makes her officially obese. Does that bother her? "Not really," she said. "What matters is my metabolic fitness."

Some in the world of health -- and, as James says, they are a minority -- think too much is made of the lower end of the BMI scale, that perhaps even the entire category called overweight causes much anxiety for nothing.

"This is so ludicrous," Ikeda said. "Why are we doing this to ourselves? I think it has a lot to do with the dieting and pharmaceutical industry and the pressure to medicate every condition."

"A completely phony category" is what University of Colorado attorney Paul Campos calls overweight. Author of "The Obesity Myth," he argues that the real health problem is too little exercise, not too much weight.

"There is no basis in the medical literature to draw the conclusion that having a BMI between 25 and 29 an is an independent health risk," he said. "It is quite preposterous to make that claim."

Such out-of-step pronouncements are fighting words in the field of nutrition and health, where many consider the evils of fat to be beyond question.

Former New England Journal of Medicine Editor Jerome Kassirer remembers the indignation six years ago when he wrote a skeptical editorial calling the data linking weight and ill health "limited, fragmentary and often ambiguous." "We got flack from just about everybody except the fatties," he recalled, although he hasn't seen anything since to change his mind.

One of the most persistent doubters is Steven Blair of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. His research buttresses the idea that fitness is more important than fatness.

In following 25,000 Cooper patients for eight years, he found that it is better to be fit and fat than skinny and sedentary. In fact, overweight people who have good stamina on a treadmill test live just as long as equally fit people who are not overweight.

"If you look at people in the overweight category, many have none of the conventional risk factors, like elevated blood pressure and cholesterol," Blair said. "Should they be stigmatized and treated? For what?"

Many obesity experts concede that Blair has a point: People who are overweight but fit probably do escape many of the consequences of their size. But they often add: So what?

"It may be true, but the fact is, overweight people are not fit," said Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, head of obesity research at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. "The average American is incredibly sedentary."

Not always, says Blair. About half the oversize people who get physical exams at Cooper in fact are physically fit, based on their treadmill tests. Although hardly a random sample -- these people are overwhelmingly white, educated and well-off -- Blair contends that plenty of overweight Americans are just like him.

"I'm a short fat guy," said Blair, whose BMI is about 32. "Would I rather be a short thin guy? Sure. But I'm not. I run every day and eat a healthy diet and do what I can."

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