A new study is saying that being overweight may not be the killer we once thought it was and the number of deaths each year attributed to obesity and being overweight in the United States is around 112,000 - about one-quarter of the previous estimate of more than 400,000 deaths.
Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta in 2004 released an estimate of 400,000 deaths due to obesity and warned that obesity would overtake smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable death in America.
A government study "Building a Better Pyramid", overstated the danger of obesity and many scientists questioned the methods used to calculate the 400,000 deaths.
A recount was agreed and the new report by Katherine Flegal, a senior researcher at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, and her colleagues shows in fact that both underweight and obese individuals have an increased risk of death, but there is no increased risk for moderately overweight people, and finds that the relationship between weight and death is not as straightforward as previously thought.
Flegal believes the results are not definitive but just a piece of the puzzle on the issue of health and weight.
Public debates about weight and health often put being overweight in the same category as obese, but this new research suggests that overweight individuals do not have the same health risks as obese individuals.
Experts in diet and nutrition have expressed concern that this latest data will give the wrong message about healthy eating, and have been quick to re-affirm that a good diet and exercise are important for health, but question whether the multibillion-dollar diet industry has misled Americans about the health hazards of being a few pounds overweight.
The experts do say however that, while being overweight itself might not be deadly, it can set you up for obesity in the future.
Charles Clark, professor of medicine and pharmacology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, says being overweight is the best predictor of obesity and the younger you are when you become overweight the more likely it is that you will become obese.
They also believe that focusing on mortality data obscures the true risk of being overweight, which is the toll it can take on a person's quality of life. Obese individuals may not die from their weight, but they often have problems like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Glenn Gaesser, professor and director of the kinesiology program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, comments that he has been a critic of the 'obesity kills' statistics for years and the assumption that all fat people die because they are fat.
Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado in Boulder and author of "The Obesity Myth", says the findings are consistent across all government surveys from 1970 through 2002, that the lowest mortality risk is found in the 'overweight' category.
In a second study published this week the point is reinforced that obesity must often be offset with the use of drugs or other medical treatments. An examination of national data from 1999-00 finds that 16 percent of normal weight individuals were receiving treatment for high blood pressure compared with 39 percent of obese individuals.
The good news is that today's obese individuals have overall better heart risk profiles than thin people did 30 years ago.
Study author Edward Gregg, an epidemiologist for the CDC, attributes the improvement to many factors.
Obese is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30; overweight is a BMI of 25 to 29.9. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.
The new paper is published in the April 18 Journal of the American Medical Association.