Senay: Obesity Still Health Risk

"It was really a very surprising finding, and I think is confounding and confusing."

That's the reaction of The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay to a new calculation from the CDC that found people who are modestly overweight actually have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight.

Senay told co-anchor Julie Chen: "This certainly flies in the face of what we've been told and what other studies have found over time."

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that obesity accounts for 25,814 deaths a year in the United States. As recently as January, the CDC came up with an estimate 14 times higher: 365,000 deaths.

According to the new calculation, obesity ranks No. 7 instead of No. 2 among the nation's leading preventable causes of death.

The new analysis found that obesity — being extremely overweight — is indisputably lethal. But like several recent smaller studies, it found that people who are modestly overweight have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight.

So should people actually avoid taking off those extra ten pounds?

"It's really hard to say," Senay responded. "Because so much goes into this calculation, we don't really have an answer to that. That's why I think most of the public health experts are taking a cautious point of view at the moment. They want to look again at this and see how this falls.

"I don't think we have the answers yet. I think it remains to be seen. Being a healthy weight is a good thing."

Another surprising finding, Senay says, is that there is an excess risk of death related to being underweight.

Biostatistician Mary Grace Kovar, a consultant for the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center in Washington, said "normal" may be set too low for today's population. Also, Americans classified as overweight are eating better, exercising more and managing their blood pressure better than they used to, she said.

The study — an analysis of mortality rates and body-mass index, or BMI — was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.