January 22, 2013

Professors Consider Changing Perceptions Of Weight Through Former Cornell Student

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Cornell student Elsie Scheel, at 5’7 and 171 pounds, was described by The New York Times in 1912 as “a near perfect specimen of womanhood,” whose “very presence bespeaks perfect health.”

“According to Doctor Esther Parker, medical examiner of 400 ‘co-eds’ in the university, Miss Scheel is not only a woman of great strength, but in her physical make-up there is not a single defect,” the 1912 New York Times article stated.

Scheel, however, would be considered overweight by today’s body mass index standards, according to Prof. Kathleen Rasmussen, nutritional sciences.

“By today’s fashion standards, she would be too heavy,” Rasmussen said. “In BMI, she would be heavier than normal weight.”

Scheel has become the unlikely personification of an ongoing debate on the relationship between weight and mortality, with a  Journal of American Medical Association report published in January suggesting that the relationship between the two is not as clear cut as previously assumed.

The JAMA report focuses on a study conducted by Katherine Flegal Ph.D. ’82 and her colleagues. The study considers whether women like Scheel are at higher risk of death because of their weight. The article looks at the relative mortality risks associated with “normal weight, overweight and obesity.”

“The researchers found a six-percent lower risk of death for overweight people,” Prof. Jeff Sobal, nutritional sciences, said. “The relationship between body mass and death rates remains an unsettled issue. Various studies have shown a strong and non-strong relationship between the two.”

Since Scheel’s days at Cornell, there has also been a cultural shift in the perception of weight, according to Sobal.

“One hundred years ago, we had very different ideas about beauty and health. At that point, more people were dying of acute disease — the article was written just six years before the influenza outbreak, which in Ithaca killed 26 people per day,” he said. “Being larger and more robust at that time could serve as a form of protection.”

But now, Rasmussen said, “we have infectious diseases under control.” That leaves non-communicable diseases — like heart disease and diabetes — the main health concern for overweight people.

The study’s observations could perhaps be explained by the health benefits of stored fat, as well as overweight patients’ increased likelihood of seeing a doctor and receiving optimal health treatment.

But Prof. David Levitsky, nutritional sciences, advised caution in interpreting the JAMA study, which focused on mortality — the likelihood of dying — rather than on morbidity, the likelihood of getting a disease.

“We’ve got tons of data showing that if you’re large, you’re more likely to get diseases,” he said. “And if you’re hypertensive or diabetic, for example, you’re more likely to die.”

Usually, BMI reflects fat in the body and is related to long-term health effects, but it can be affected by several factors, Prof. Martha Stipanuk, nutritional sciences, said.

“It’s difficult for me to say if Elsie would be considered healthy today, since I can’t see her; I would need to see the distribution of her weight, and how much muscle she had, and her bone structure,” Stipanuk said. “In general, having a BMI in the healthy range is considered good, but aiming at a BMI that one can maintain is also a desirable objective.”

She cautioned that the JAMA study should not be seen as an invitation to accept the rise in obesity in the country.

“In our culture, people are gaining weight, becoming overweight and then obese. There are also children becoming obese,” Stipanuk said. “This study shouldn’t cause us to be less concerned about that.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler