This is us

The new normal/Wikimedia Commons

Rise of the extra-wide home sapiens

If you looked in the mirror recently and saw someone too big looking back, don’t worry.

The World Obesity Foundation is now reporting the world population is on track to make that individual the global norm by 2035, and if you happen to live in the U.S., that person is already in the majority.

All U.S. states, according to the lastest from the Trust for America’s Health, are today dominated by overweight and obese adults with the percentage of the populations ranging from 55.4 percent in the District of Columbia to 73.5 percent in the state of West Virginia where more than 40 percent of the population has gone beyond overweight to reach obesity.

To get there, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher is required. The average American male – who now stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall – needs to reach 203 pounds to achieve that BMI, and an average American woman – who now stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall – needs to get to 175.

To reach “severe obesity,” which a quarter of West Virginians are now reported to have achieved, a BMI of 40 is required. That puts the average height man at about 270 and the average height woman at just over 230.

And, of course, the required BMI increases with height. A 6-foot male needs to get to 295 pounds to qualify as seriously obese.

BMI, it has been recognized, is prejudiced against men, who tend to have both larger bones and more muscle mass than women, and some have suggested a comparison of waist circumference to height might be a better measure of the now well-documented risks of being overweight.

A Rand Corporation study concluded that waist size was a better indicator of diabetes risk in the U.S. than BMI. Diabetes is one of several major health problems that have been linked to being overweight or obese, and Rand investigators were trying to figure out why diabetes is about twice as common among middle-aged and older Americans than among residents of the United Kingdom (UK).

They decided the problem was the American gut. The American gut and diabetes are among a variety of obesity-linked issues that result in the U.S.  spending over twice as much on health care as the British only to end up with a middle-aged population less healthy, according to Medical News Today. 

The Rand researchers, working with colleagues from the University College London and the London-based Institute For Fiscal Studies, concluded that belly fat, of which Americans have more than Brits, is a telltale for diabetes, which would suggest – to paraphrase the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – that while it might be hard to define who is problematically overweight,  you can tell it when you see it.

How fast do you move?

And if you can’t tell whose in trouble by looking, just take your overweight/obese friend – or any friend for that matter (or yourself) – for a walk.

British researchers looking at walking pace back in 2018 discovered that slow walkers had a 20 percent greater risk of all-cause mortality than average or brisk/fast pace walkers and a nearly 25 percent greater risk of death from heart disease.

Their peer-reviewed study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, followed on a 2017 peer-reviewed study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that found people who cycled to work or walked to work cut their risks of death by cardiovascular disease (CVD) by 52 percent and 36 percent respectively. 

The latter study involved 263,450 participants from the UK Biobank who, according to the study, were “relatively representative of the general population for age, sex, ethnicity, and deprivation within the age range” of 40 to 69 years old with an average of 52.

The authors conceded their sample might have contained a “healthy volunteers selection bias” and thus underrepresented those with obesity and comorbidities, but adding more such participants known to be prone to an early death because of pre-existing health conditions would only serve to further increase the health gains linking to incorporating more physical activity into daily life.

And then along came the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

That led researchers in the UK to once again turn to the nation’s Biobank to look at the association between fitness and pandemic outcomes. The differences between the fast walkers and the slow walkers were in this case even more startling.

After examining the files for 412,595 Biobank participants with an average of 68 – putting the participants in the age group far and away most like to die from Covid-`19 – scientists calculated that “compared to normal weight brisk walkers,” a normal weight slow walker had a 2.42 times greater risk of coming down with a severe infection and a 3.75 times greater risk of death.

Brisk walkers were defined as those moving at a speed greater than 4 mph or 15 minutes per mile. Average pace walkers were those defined as doing 3 mph (20 minutes per mile) to 4 mph. Slow walkers were those doing under 3 mph.

Overweight and obese participants in the study had significantly higher risks of severe Covid-19 and death than normal-weight participants, but a faster walking pace served to help zero that out.

Fast-walking overweight people turned out to be at less risk than slow walkers of normal weight.

“Slow walkers had the highest risk regardless of obesity status,” concluded the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Obesity in 2021. “Self-reported slow walkers appear to be a high-risk group for severe COVID-19 outcomes independent of obesity.”

Mountain of evidence

All available evidence now indicates beyond a shadow of a doubt that getting the residents of the Western world up and moving would not only ensure longer lives, but it would also ensure healthier ones.

And yet public policy in the U.S. at least remains focused on making motorized transportation ever easier, which almost ensures people move less, and trying to maintain health with technological innovations.

The mRNA vaccines intended to diminish the potency of SARS-CoV=2 infections are but the latest effort to find a shot or a pill to all the things that now ail Americans while little is done to try to alter the fundamental problem of unhealthy lifestyles.

Other countries are at least trying. The UK now has an aggressive “active travel” program committed to reinvigorating walking and cycling as practical means to get around in UK communities. 

The program has run into predictable opposition from those who have generally come to believe that it should be a “right” to drive everywhere, preferably as easily and as fast as possible. But active travel plans are still moving forward.

The French are pursuing what they call an “energy transition scenario” in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in the belief “these changes could have important health co-benefits,” according to analysts studying the country’s negaWatt program to encourage walking, cycling and E-biking.

“…We quantified that the negaWatt scenario would prevent 9,797 annual premature deaths in 2045 and translate into a three-month increase in life expectancy in the general population,” they reported in the International Journal of Public Health last year. “These health gains would generate €34 billion of economic benefits from 2045 onwards.”

U.S. efforts to improve the health of Americans have, meanwhile, focused largely on drugs, advertisements for which now flood the nation’s TV screens, and vaccines. The new vaccines to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus are credited for a significant reduction in Covid-19 deaths over the past two years.

But one does have to wonder about the country’s vaccination-for-everything strategy in light of what was learned early in the pandemic about the importance of so-called “naive” T-cells in battling a wholly new disease.

Native T-cells are the body’s front-line defense against new pathogens as opposed to memory T-cells, which have adapted to fight known diseases.

This is all a part of a complicated human immune system that has evolved over the course of several hundred thousand years and appears to require a certain amount of regular physical exercise to maintain its production of T cells, especially as humans age.

Too much good thing

It has been theorized, though the subject is highly debated, that homo sapiens have a “finite amount of immunological space” wherein “antigen-naive cells could be ‘used up’ due to ongoing differentiation into memory cells that ‘fill up’ immunological ‘space,'” as researchers observed in a peer-reviewed study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity in 2017.

What vaccines do is help convert naive cells into memory cells, and there are reasons to wonder if there comes a point at which too many vaccines lead to a shift in naive to memory cells that could make it harder for humans to battle the next new pathogen to emerge on the planet.

But it’s hard to predict the long-term consequences of our technological messing with evolution because the future remains unknown.

What is known for sure at this time, however, is that “overweight or obese individuals are at a greater risk of viral and bacterial infections, have longer stays in hospital, and exhibit more frequent and prolonged complications, such as antibiotic treatment failure,” as the report in Cellular Longevity noted.

How much of that is a direct effect of being overweight/obese and how much is related to the fact most overweight/obese people are also out of shape is hard to say. Scientists have yet to reach a consensus on that subject.

A long-running fit-but-fat debate still rages with some arguing it is possible to be fit but fat and others contending there is some limit to overweight at which body size trumps fitness.

A 2021 examination of the health records of more than a half million Spaniards aged 18 to 64 years old published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology early last year concluded that physical activity (PA) could not “completely negate the deleterious effects of overweight/obesity,” but the authors of that report conceded that another study had found “that PA was associated with a larger reduction in the odds of 10-year CVD risk than having a normal weight.”

The best thing is obviously to be physically fit and of normal weight, but if weight maintenance is a problem, as it is for many, better to be physically fit and overweight than to be overweight and out of shape.

If anyone cares.

There does not seem to be great concern about fitness or weight in the U.S. given the joint and continuing trends of those of normal weight moving into the overweight category and those already overweight moving into the obese category.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) labeled this “The Obesity Epidemic”  in 2011, but almost nothing has been done to counter it in the dozen years since. Americans have just grown fatter and more out of shape.

Not even the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has preyed heavily on those who are fat, out-of-shape or saddled with co-morbidities tied to a lifetime of lethargy, has shown any sign of motivating changes in behavior. The message still doesn’t seem to be getting through that if Americans truly want a healthier country they need to get off their asses and move.

But then again, it’s so much easier to pop a pill or get a shot….

























8 replies »

  1. BMI is complete BS. Junk science. It makes climate change science look sane. All people (bears, moose, caribou, deer, etc) of like height cannot and will not weigh the same. The mere imagination that such fantasy is ‘science’ is comedy.

  2. From time to time, your messages focus on the deleterious impacts of being overweight and or unfit. These aren’t new or startling observations. But there are other elements of the problem you could elaborate on. For example, the focus of US Food industry on exaggerating the attractiveness and seductiveness of unhealthy foods by inducing increased dopamine stimulation; the fact that the human brain, since the origin of homo, has developed to respond to these types of food, and some of us have specific genetic predisposition to more vulnerability to these attractions; the comparative lack of regulatory attention in this country to controlling these industrial practices, solely for profit, with approaches by other countries and the EU; the failures of fad diets/pills, compared to the successes of newer drugs and bariatric surgery for those for whom no other options are going to work; and finally, a step back from placing moral condemnation on everyone who is overweight, since that condition isn’t at all universally within the reach of everyone. Consider that overweight people demonstrate a rate approximating 75% when seeing how many, annually, attempt some sort of weight loss regimen.
    For the record, I don’t have the genetic misfortune of being obese, and am not defending anyone close to me who might be. But you could do more and better if you aimed at advancing new knowledge about human weight as well as the obscene efforts by Big Ag to seduce us all to overconsume a deleterious diet.
    In Alaska, there are remnants of a hunter-gatherer culture, but I’d guess that the introduction of the modern US food industry diet—compared, say, to a similar population in Greenland where their diet might remain closer to subsistence—has sorely affected the incidence of obesity in your state.

    • Richard: You’ve accurately pointed out a bunch of the obesity problems and underlined our collective unwillingness to deal with them at the political level. We could be taxing food ingredients to help out here, but the odds of that seem so low it’s not even worth writing about. The same for television advertising that is constantly, constantly pushing food at people.

      And dealing solely with the weight problem does nothing to address the fitness problem, which is a companion issue and arguably more of a problem than obesity. I have a goodly number of fit peo;le who are friends and acquaintances. Offhand, I can’t think of a one of them who is obese. Overweight? Yes. Obese? No.

      It’s sad what our machines and electronic toys have done to us.

      • I’m not sure we couldn’t ban advertising for the most unhealthy of foods. It wasn’t easy, but over 50 years ago we did ban TV advertising of cigarettes and the results have been positive.

        It would be fun to see which politicians lined up for and against…You can have my Super Big Gulp when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

  3. I suspect the economics aren’t as good for helping the obese lose weight compared to medical treatment of those who are unhealthily obese.

Leave a Reply