A new paper is calling for an end to the term ‘healthy obesity’ – a phrase used to denote individuals who are apparently healthy despite being obese. The term originated in the 1980s and was used to describe overweight people who did not suffer from metabolic complications like hypertension or diabetes.

In the journal Annals of Human Biology, Dr. William Johnson, from the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, said the term is being misleading and flawed and distracts from what should be the real focus of research: understanding the causes and consequences of varying health among people with the same BMI.

Health differences between obese individuals with the same BMI (body mass index) could be the result of contributing factors such as the duration of the obesity, adverse early life events, and smoking during adolescence, according to Johnson.

“It is undeniable that obesity is bad for health, but there are clearly differences between individuals in the extent to which it is bad,” said Johnson. “While the concept of healthy obesity is crude and problematic and may best be laid to rest, there is great opportunity for human biological investigation of the levels, causes, and consequences of heterogeneity in health among people with the same BMI.

“While epidemiology has revealed many of the life course processes and exposures that lead to a given disease, we know relatively little about the things that occur across someone’s life that lead to them having a heart attack, for example, while their friend with the same BMI is fine. Existing birth cohort studies have the data necessary to improve knowledge on this topic.”

With obesity at epidemic levels worldwide, such research could inform the development of more stratified disease prevention and intervention efforts targeted at individuals who have the highest risk.

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