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U.S. scientist: Fat can be healthy

Blair says fitness is the key to minimising health risks in obese people  

LONDON, England -- A leading scientist has sparked controversy by saying fat people who exercise are at no greater risk from disease than their thinner, lazier counterparts.

In a meeting with the Association for the Study of Obesity in London, American scientist Steven Blair said: "There is a misdirected obsession with weight and weight loss, the focus is all wrong. It's fitness that is the key."

But the International Obesity Taskforce said the findings trivialised the debate. Its spokesman Neville Rigby told CNN: "No amount of exhorting fat people to become fit is going to solve the obesity problem. These people are desperate."

Blair, rector of research at the Cooper Institute for Research in Dallas, Texas, said: "I don't mean it eliminates every health risk, but you can stay overweight and obese if you are fit and be just as healthy, in terms of mortality risk, as a lean, fit person.

"We have also looked at disease rates, particularly diabetes," he added. "The facts hold there too that the obese individuals who are fit develop diabetes at about the same rate as the lean individuals who are unfit."

Blair argued that studies into obesity and risk of death from heart disease and other killer infections have completely missed the crucial influence of exercise.

Obesity is the second leading killer of Americans -- beaten only by cigarette smoking -- who make up the world's fattest population. An estimated 62 percent of U.S. citizens are overweight and 26 percent are obese.

Dr. Susan Jebb, director of the Human Nutrition Unit at Cambridge University in England, told The Associated Press: "I think it is good news for people who are overweight because it kind of gives them two options: you don't have to lose weight. You can instead improve your fitness."

But she added: "The question is just how many obese people can manage the level of fitness that he is showing is beneficial?" Blair said just 30 minutes of brisk walking every day would make most people fit, AP reported.

'Trim and fit is the ideal'

Blair's argument immediately came under fire though. the International Obesity Taskforce's Rigby said: "The idea you can be fat and fit does not help the fight against health risks like cancer and heart disease that are inextricably linked to obesity. Being fit does not alter that equation."

Health writer Dr. Ann Robinson was also dubious about the research, saying they "fly in the face of recent evidence that suggests mild long-term food deprivation can actually increase life expectancy.

She told CNN: "It is probably true that if you locate a small subset of fat people who don't suffer from high blood pressure or diabetes -- the conditions which predispose them to early death -- they will live as long as their thin counterparts.

"But fat people afflicted by high blood pressure or other associated health problems are far more likely to die earlier than thinner sufferers of those conditions."

Blair pointed out obese people might still want to lose weight for other reasons: "so they can stop others discriminating against them," he told AP.

Dr. Robinson agreed, saying "all my contact with obese people suggests to me they would feel happier, healthier, and have a much better quality of life if they weren't quite so overweight."

She cautioned the ideal was still trim and fit, to prevent other complications of obesity not thought to be related to fitness, such as cancer and arthritis.

"We need a less emotive and less judgemental debate on ways of dealing with obesity. Telling people they can be fat, fit and healthy is not the answer."

• The Cooper Institute
• Health Development Agency
• International Obesity Task Force

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