Probing Question: Is being overweight always bad for your health?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Fat. Sugar. Salt. Americans have a love-hate relationship with these ingredients. We know we should consume them in moderation. After all, we've been told again and again that being overweight or obese can cause health problems. But they make foods taste so darn good! Can being overweight really be so bad? 

According to Gordon Jensen, head of Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, the answer may be "no" -- at least for those of us who are lucky enough to live to the grand old age of 75 and beyond. For these seniors, being overweight or mildly obese does not necessarily appear to be detrimental to health and it may actually offer benefits.

"More than a third of Americans are overweight, and by 2030, nearly as many are projected to be obese, not just overweight," said Jensen. "While they are at increased risk for associated medical conditions, it's simply not true that all of these people are destined to suffer major health problems as a result."

"For people who live to be this old, being overweight or mildly obese appears potentially to help them survive during times of infection, illness or injury. The extra weight may act as a reserve for older people when their bodies are stressed."

— Gordon Jensen

Jensen and colleagues have conducted extensive research on the nutritional needs of older adults and have found that for people ages 75 and older, eating diets high in sugar and fat may not adversely affect their health outcomes. Their research has shown that older adults who followed diets high in fat and refined sugar did not die at a higher rate than older adults who followed more healthy diets.

"For people who live to be this old, being overweight or mildly obese appears potentially to help them survive during times of infection, illness or injury. The extra weight may act as a reserve for older people when their bodies are stressed. In addition, there are likely other potential benefits for older persons following healthy diets that have not been addressed in this research.” However, Jensen said, “It is important to emphasize that severe obesity most certainly does not offer health or mortality benefits." (Obesity is defined by a person’s Body Mass Index. Waist circumference and existing health risks also determine how dangerous a person’s added pounds may be for them.) 

Jensen said these findings provide further evidence that putting overweight or obese adults of this age group on overly restrictive therapeutic diets may not be of much benefit. "You don't take frail older persons and place them on highly restrictive diets to treat their excess weight," he said. "Geriatricians and nutritionists have recognized this for a long time."

However, in younger seniors -- ages 60 to 70 -- who are overweight or obese, Jensen and his colleagues have found that losing weight may result in dramatic improvements.

However, in younger seniors -- ages 60 to 70 -- who are overweight or obese, Jensen and his colleagues have found that losing weight may result in dramatic improvements. "By losing moderate weight, these ‘young’ older people can often lower blood sugars; lower their blood pressure; reduce metabolic syndrome, at least over the short run; and improve functioning in terms of physical performance," he explained.

For the vast majority of us, it seems there is still a need to watch our diets and our weight -- that is, if we value our physical health. But for those of us who live long enough, there may come a day when we can drop some of our vigilance. Talk about delayed gratification!

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Last Updated March 13, 2013