THE BLOG
12/22/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Fat Could Be the New Smoking in Terms of Life Expectancy

When you're thinking about loading up on that second helping of apple pie, you might want to remember the results of a just-released study from McGill University. It showed that obesity can reduce your lifespan by eight years. The study examined the records of 3,993 people logged in a survey called the National Health and Nutrition Examination between 2003 and 2010 for whom comprehensive data were available. That included a blood sugar panel, indicating the metabolic states induced by that slice of apple pie.

The investigators found that those who were overweight or obese had sharply reduced lifespans. Being overweight also affects your health span and puts you at increased risk other diseases. The term "health span" refers to your years of healthy life -- do you really want an extra decade in a nursing home hooked up to a respirator and suffering from senile dementia? When the McGill researchers took into account the increased risk from heart disease and diabetes, the reduction in life-span approached two decades.

Those who were very obese were at the highest risk of premature death. Being moderately obese carried lower risks. Yet simply being overweight carried a three-year lifespan penalty. The investigators also found that gaining weight early in life was associated with increased risk.

"The pattern is clear: The more an individual weighs and the younger their age, the greater the effect on their health," said Dr. Steven Grover, a professor of medicine at McGill University and lead author of the study. "In terms of life expectancy, we feel being overweight is as bad as cigarette smoking."

Do you know whether or not you're obese or overweight? The study used Body Mass Index as a guide. Those with a BMI of 25 or more are considered overweight, and over 30 obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 69 percent of adults over the age of 20 are overweight and 35 percent are obese.

Yet there's a super-sized gap between those numbers and the percentage of people who actually realize that they have a weight issue. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 36 percent of Americans believe that they're overweight. That means that only half of those who are overweight or obese realize they have a problem.

Not a little problem, but one that can reduce their health span dramatically. In a disturbing counterpoint to the McGill findings that gaining weight early led to increased risk, the Gallup poll found that the percentage of young people who realized they were overweight was lower than that of older people. The inability to understand or admit that you have a weight problem can produce adverse health consequences later in your life.

Given the long-term health and lifestyle consequences of that extra slice of apple pie, can we be persuaded to change? According to data gathered by the National Weight Control Registry and summarized in my book EFT for Weight Loss, there are six characteristics of people who lose weight and keep it off permanently.

One of those is correcting course quickly after they gain weight. They don't say, "Well, I slipped and ate that second helping of apple pie, so I might as well eat all I want during the holidays and I'll diet next year." Instead, they focus returning them to their baseline weight as quickly as possible.

Weight maintenance is important throughout the year, and if you're overweight, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it. A sensible weight loss program focuses not only on immediate weight loss, but long-term maintenance of a healthy weight. Researchers at Bond University found that an effective program didn't just result in temporary success; participants in their study continued to lose weight throughout the subsequent months. Over the subsequent year, they lost an average of 11.1 pounds. The behaviors they'd learned changed their habits, creating gradual, sustainable and permanent weight loss.

So when that apple pie beckons, have a slow and thoughtful bite or two, and savor every delicious mouthful. Remember that eating the whole slice -- or more -- comes with risks much more severe than the calories it contains, and that the consequences of overindulgence could rob you of many years of life and health.