By most measures, Kelly Bliss, 50, surely seems to have let herself go. The Lansdowne, Pa., resident stands 5 ft. 2 in. in her stockings but tips the scales at nearly 200 lbs. Run those numbers through the body mass index (BMI)--the statistical measure that factors height and weight to diagnose obesity--and Bliss scores higher than 35. Anything above 25 is overweight; anything above 30 is obese. In the nation's ongoing war with obesity-related health problems, Bliss is one more casualty, right?
Maybe not. In fact, we should all be as unhealthy as Kelly Bliss. Her blood pressure is often as low as 100/50. Her cholesterol and blood sugar are normal. When she lies on her back, she can pull her leg to her face and touch her nose--while barely bending her knee. Can you? Oh, yes, and while most Americans exercise grudgingly, if at all, Bliss never misses a day, walking 10 to 20 miles a week and teaching an aerobics class at a local church. "You look at me in a leotard," she says. "I'm a cute little chick."
In a culture that fetishizes slimness, the idea of being fat and happy raises eyebrows. The idea of being fat and fit is nothing short of apostasy. Yet Bliss is both--and she's not alone.
With 30% of American adults considered obese and as many as 50 million of us on some sort of diet--usually unsuccessfully--at any one time, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves whether we're going about things all wrong. It's not the number on the scale or the size of your khakis that will kill you, after all; it's the elevated blood pressure and cholesterol and other nasty problems that come with moving to the relaxed-fit rack. If you eat well, work out regularly and walk away from your doctor's office with straight A's on your physical, what does it matter if you can't wriggle into slim-cut jeans?
That's a question more and more people have begun to ask, and lately they have been getting some answers they like. The explosive reaction in the press in April to a research report suggesting that Americans who are a bit overweight had a ("slight") reduction in the risk of dying over the course of the study compared with those of normal weight brightened the mood in buffet lines everywhere. Not surprisingly, the public largely overlooked the study's more important point--that obesity still cuts lives short. But even as the public seized on the slim hope that there really might be a free lunch, the experts have also begun questioning the received wisdom that fat is wholly anathema to good health.
"The idea that being a string bean is the best thing to be is too simplistic," says David Jacobs, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. "I think it's possible to be large and fit."