CHICAGO -- We're only one-third of the way through January, yet there's already a strong contender for most ridiculous and overblown news story of the year.
Here are a few hints, and please note that none of these headlines come from the satirical news site The Onion: "Being Overweight Is Linked to Lower Risk of Mortality," "Is Being Overweight Really Bad for You?," "Extra Weight Linked to Longevity," and, my favorite, "No Extra Death Risk Seen for Moderate Obesity."
Let's start there.
"'Moderate obesity?' I've never even heard that term. It doesn't mean anything to me," said Dr. Patrick M. O'Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina and immediate past president of the Obesity Society, the main scientific and clinical professional association devoted to the study of obesity. "It's not a helpful term at all and should not be used because while it may reflect a level of severity that's not extreme, it seems to imply a benign status or very low risk, which I think may be misleading."
O'Neil was kind enough to share some thoughts with me about the nature of the headlines that followed a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that seems to add some gloss to the usually negative statistics about our raging obesity epidemic.
Yes, it is true that the analysis in question yielded the finding that people with a body mass index of 25 to 30 -- who are considered overweight -- have a 6 percent lower risk of death than people whose BMI is in the "normal" range of 18.5 to 25.
Yet, the reality is that such a figure is basically meaningless. And unfortunately, you'd have to read pretty far into most of the news coverage before coming upon a warning to not take this data as a license to overeat.
"People like running stories about weight at the beginning of the year no matter what, so it's inevitable that this JAMA story about obesity was going to get a lot of play," O'Neil told me. The problem is that "this is the time of year that a lot of people may be worried about their weight and they may be tempted to look for reasons to worry less or to do less about it. It would be a shame if this news coverage contributed to people ignoring a growing, or beginning, problem."
After years of writing about obesity and the long-term effects that being even just a little overweight can have on the body, it drives me crazy to see such a widespread willingness to trivialize an epidemic that is ruining the lives of children and adults across the country.
Sure, the headline "A Few Extra Pounds Won't Kill You -- Really" is technically true. But Type 2 diabetes, increased cancer risk, heart disease and the years of needles, drugs and restricted diet won't make for much of a living.
So let's bust some myths here.
Body mass index is only one factor in a wide array of circumstances that determine overall health. Few people understand this.
"The distinction between overweight and obesity is lost on most people in the general public," O'Neil said. "To be precise, if you're looking at BMI, overweight is considered between 25-30 (BMI score) and obesity is considered above 30. But people are much more likely to believe they are only overweight when they are actually securely in the obese range."
Yet, even this is arbitrary. For instance, a person with an 18.5 BMI might maintain such a low figure while smoking or by nursing an eating disorder, whereas a person with a BMI of 26-27 might be in tip-top shape but heavily muscled.
Really, it's not what the scale says that you should be most worried about. Think long-term. "Obviously, anyone with concerns should see their doctor, but even before that, a person should reflect about what they want to live long for," O'Neil said. "Rarely do I see a patient who is worried about his life span being X years shorter. It's 'I've got a new grandchild and I want to get down on the floor to play with her -- and be able to get up again.'"
Anyone carrying some extra pounds needs to ignore the headlines and start considering how meaningful their "extended longevity" might actually be.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.