There’s not one person who hasn’t heard that being overweight is very bad for one’s health — that much, we’re all aware of. But studies have found that being too skinny comes with its own set of serious risks, and according to a recent study, being skinny is in fact more dangerous to one’s health than carrying excess weight.
Researchers in Toronto, Canada found that people who are underweight have almost twice the risk of death as people who are obese. This finding came after a review of more than 50 previous studies. Some of the studies had followed patients for 5 or more years, focusing on relationships between body-mass index (or BMI, a measure doctors use to determine whether or not someone is at a healthy weight) and deaths from any cause. The studies also included deaths among newborns and still-born babies.
The review found that underweight patients of all ages had a 1.8 times greater risk of dying than people of normal weight. By comparison, obese folks had a 1.2 times greater risk of dying than people of normal weight; morbidly obese patients had a 1.3 times greater risk than normal-weight patients.
BMI may measure a person’s fat, but it could also be measuring muscle and mass, as it divides the person’s weight by their height. Therefore, a person with a higher BMI than normal is not necessarily fat — they may just have more muscle. For this reason, some medical professionals believe that measuring a person’s waist circumference may better indicate whether a person is packing unhealthy pounds of fat, or whether they have leaner (and heavier and healthier) muscle mass. But for people who don’t have muscular builds, a BMI reading can give a reasonably good indication of whether the person is at a healthy weight or not.
A person is considered underweight if they have a BMI index of 18.5 or lower; normal BMI is between 18.6 and 25.9; a BMI between 30 and 34.9 is considered overweight; and a BMI of 35 or higher is considered severely obese.
Study leader Dr. Joel Ray, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, stated that it’s important to keep a ‘healthy’ body size in mind when addressing the obesity epidemic. He cautioned that health authorities should not lead people to believe that being skinny is healthy, when in fact having some muscle mass (and a healthy amount of fat for one’s gender) is in truth a healthier physique.
The findings of the study appeared recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health.
Specific Reasons Why Being Underweight Is Unhealthy
Risk factors often found in people who are underweight include: malnourishment, drug or alcohol abuse, smoking, poverty, mental health issues (for example, people who are depressed or under severe stress may have diminished appetites and not eat enough), and even the belief that because one is thin, one does not need to go to the doctor for checkups. But the fact is that no matter what one’s weight is, blood sugar levels and bad cholesterol levels can still be too high, and therefore unhealthy, even in an underweight individual.
A thin person might think that because they are underweight, they can eat unhealthy fast foods, avoid exercising and the like. But that is not the case.
In addition, people who are naturally very thin are often that way due to genetics. A 2011 study found that in thin people, fat may be stored deeper within the body, such as around vital organs like the heart and the liver. So, while a skinny person may not have the proverbial ‘spare tire,’ they may be carrying the fat that they do have in places that put them at higher risk for diabetes and even heart disease.
Being too thin can also work against a person’s immunity. The body’s immune cells need a variety of nutrients to take on invading germs; if a person doesn’t eat very much, they are more likely to be missing out on key nutrients. This would decrease their ability to fight colds, allergies and different infections, including cancerous cells.
Anemia is another condition that many underweight people have; it is the result of nutritional deficiencies in iron, vitamin B-12 and folate. If you are underweight, it may be a good idea to have your doctor check for any nutritional deficiencies, and recommend foods that you need to eat more of.
And when it comes time to become a parent, an underweight woman or man is at a clear disadvantage. It is harder for an underweight woman to conceive, and it is also more difficult for her to sustain the pregnancy. One study found that underweight women were 72 percent more likely to have a miscarriage during the first trimester than women of a healthy weight. As for men, underweight men face a far greater risk — 22 times greater — of having sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction, difficulty ejaculating and painful intercourse. The health of sperm may also be diminished in men who are underweight, according to previous studies.
If you are underweight, talk to your doctor or a certified nutritionist about healthy ways to boost your caloric intake, and about supplements you may want to take, to insure balanced nutrition.
(To calculate your BMI: it’s a mathematical equation involving multiplication, division and your height in inches, squared. Unless you’re a mathematician, the best thing to do is search “BMI” online and plug in your weight and height.)
By Jamell Andrews