On the Table

Don't fall for food fantasies

January 8, 2013 

Carrying some extra weight from holiday binges and ready for a fresh start?

If so, in this month of New Year’s resolutions, you, like many of us, may be vulnerable to pitches about easy ways to better health.

It’s the season of food-borne fantasies.

You’ve seen the come-ons.

“Dark chocolate is good for you.” The kind you and I typically buy is not.

“Grapefruit burns fat.” Nope.

“Everyone needs to eat some fat.” True, but the amount you need is likely far, far less than what you eat.

Now there’s a new one.

Last week brought hype over a study that newspaper headlines suggested was proof that there’s no need to worry about being overweight. The study, conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a review of all-cause mortality for overweight and obese people based on BMI – body mass index – as compared to people of normal weight.

A major finding of the study was that being overweight was associated with lower rates of death. That’s all it took for many people to come to the wrong conclusion.

Among the Facebook posts were “Take that, skinny people!” and “Skinnies are malnourished anyway.”

“I’m living to 120!”

But there were problems with this interpretation of the study.

The study didn’t take into account the wellness levels of people with higher and lower BMIs. For example, some people are thin because they are sick, while some people with high BMIs, such as some athletes, are actually quite fit.

Remember, evidence of an association – in this case higher BMIs and lower death rates – does not prove that one causes the other.

Meanwhile, there’s a mountain of scientific evidence to show that people who are overweight have higher rates of diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses that diminish their quality of life.

So, no, the study didn’t relieve any of us of the need to get into better shape this year. The vast majority of the scientific evidence suggests it’s best to be slim and fit.

Embrace the fresh start that the new year brings and work harder to improve your diet and exercise habits. You’ll be glad you did.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net and follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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