Something amazing happened today! I had decided I wanted to write about the risks of being underweight, just to try and balance out the 'fat is bad' message we're inundated with every day. Before starting I figured it would be a good idea to do some research, particularly as I could recall reading somewhere that being underweight posed greater immediate risk to your health than being overweight. Well, I didn't manage to find the piece of research I was thinking of but I did find this.
Now this really shouldn't be news. Of course being underweight is unhealthy - that's why it's called underweight. Yet we never seem to hear about it. Unless it's in relation to starving people elsewhere or possibly in relation to anorexia.
But let me tell you something, it's much quicker to starve yourself to death than it is to eat yourself to death. I've never known anyone die within a few months of over eating, but under eating? Sadly, I am all too aware that can happen, so very quickly.
OK, now I'm going to do that thing where I relate this to my own experience. Which is absolutely useless as science but I hope it might illustrate some of what I'm trying to say. Currently, I'm over weight. In fact I'm the heaviest I've ever been. Yet, I'm also physically, the healthiest I've been since I was a young kid. My blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, lung capacity, blood levels and so on are all within the normal, healthy range. The only thing which isn't is my BMI.
The only physical problems I have are those which have been linked with the damage I did my body during my years of eating disorders. When I was underweight. So, some digestive issues and some muscle/ligament damage gained by exercising whilst being underweight.
What about when I was underweight - or even on the lower end of 'healthy' - how was my physical health looking then? Well, not great. I suffered almost constant headaches. I used to bleed, basically all the time. Seriously, lean on my elbows for a bit? They bled. Bumped into a desk/doorway/whatever? Bled. Fainted, a lot. Caught every single flu or tummy bug going around. Was constantly fatigued. Couldn't concentrate, which had a huge knock on effect in the quality of my school work. Also my ability to hold conversations with people without seeming rude. Lastly my absolute favourite - seizures! Yeah! Nothing more fun than 'waking up' in a hospital bed with no idea how you got there, feeling sick, sticky and terrified. Then falling over when you try to get up because every single part of you hurts, which you didn't realise until you tried to move.
Now, here's the thing. I'm not saying obesity isn't a health risk. There seems some relatively conclusive evidence out there that it is. All I'm saying is that it isn't the only one. Being a bit overweight is, according to the article I now can't find (fail) healthier in both the short and long term than being a bit underweight. So why don't the risks associated with being too thin get the same amount of attention? Maybe it's because more people are overweight than underweight in the west. Maybe it's because we're socialised to view fat as wrong so it's much easier to focus our attentions there. I don't know.
What I do know, is that when I worked in a hospital it was the underweight patients we worried most about. Particularly children, the elderly and pregnant women.