Do fat people live longer?

To give myself a little relief from all the general election mayhem, I was drawn to another subject – how we tend to be reverential about research that we agree with and ignore that which we does not conform with our view of the world.

In crude terms, I am suggesting that you can probably find research to justify every viewpoint under the sun.

The example I saw today was an article in The Guardian by Bethany Rutter. I am not picking on her in particular – it is just that I happened to see her column promoted on twitter.

In her article, “fat can be healthy” – she says “new research shows that being overweight can actually add to your lifespan. Let’s hope this leads to a more honest discussion of weight and body shape.”

She cites as evidence new research by Katherine Flegal, senior scientist at the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It may be that Flegal has produced some very new research but the most recent I could find was in 2013. Indeed Flegal has been arguing that obesity can extend lifespan since at least 2005. So her analysis is hardly new.

Rutter also uses the phrase: “If scientific opinion now states that overweight people live the longest.” Indeed, if you read her article, you will believe that Flegal’s analysis carries with it the imprint of scientific certainty. Rutter certainly does not suggest that there is a convincing scientifically argued alternative.

That is far from the case. One researcher, Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, dismissed the 2013 research as a “pile of rubbish . . . No one should waste their time reading it.” Others have argued that there were several methodological errors.

I have no intention of taking sides in this debate – Flegal’s arguments may turn out to be correct for all I know.  But her research is certainly controversial and far from universally accepted.

Not that you would realise that from reading Rutter’s article.

I don’t blame Rutter for not nodding towards all the other arguments – I am probably guilty of being too enthusiastic about research that supports my argument.

But it is a useful warning that we should never take at face value research that is cited in support of a particular case.

Always double check.

So my advice in this case is to google Katherine Flegal and see where her supporters and critics come from. And do particularly take one click back from the pages that you are directed to – that way at least you will be able to check who is supporting and financing what.

Then make your own judgement about Rutter’s commentary.


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