BOSTON — Current statistics on who’s obese don’t account for those who have battled obesity in the past, and that oversight has consequences, a new study finds.

Researchers at Boston University were able to analyze a comprehensive dataset, finding that 50.8 percent of American men and 51.6 percent of American women have been obese at some point in their lives.

Obese person walking
A new study finds that more than half of American men and women have battled obesity, putting them at greater risk for chronic disease even if they’ve shed the extra pounds.

One’s likelihood of being or having been obese was often contingent upon demographical factors, such as their race, gender, and educational background, they found.

Data pertaining to the incidence of eight chronic diseases — diabetes, congestive heart failure, heart attack, angina, coronary heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and liver disease — showed that those who had once been obese were at greater risk, even if they weren’t overweight at present.

“The results clearly suggest that the formerly obese group is important to consider as a separate entity,” says lead researcher Andrew Stokes in a press release.

These findings reaffirm previous research conducted by Stokes and his colleagues, in which a link between excess weight and early death was found.

Interestingly, other researchers had posited the existence of an “obesity paradox,” in which being overweight supposedly lessened one’s risk of death.

Given the fact that one’s prior weight may affect their current risk for disease, Stokes suggests that researchers split individuals into one of three categories— currently obese, formerly obese, or never obese— when determining their outlook.

This three-pronged categorization is akin to how researchers evaluate smoking and other health-related risk factors.

Lifelong obesity data “can also potentially serve as a baseline for monitoring the obesity epidemic in future years, as new interventions become available that may lead to a shift in numbers between the current and formerly obese categories,” Stokes explains.

Still, researchers must ensure that their approach considers external factors in weight variability— e.g., those who have lost weight due to illness— for a full and accurate picture of how obesity affects health.

The study’s findings were published this month in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

About Daniel Steingold

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