July 2, 2012

The lowest-mortality BMI: What is the role of nutrient intake from food?

In a previous post (), I discussed the frequently reported lowest-mortality body mass index (BMI), which is about 26. The empirical results reviewed in that post suggest that fat-free mass plays an important role in that context. Keep in mind that this "BMI=26 phenomenon" is often reported in studies of populations from developed countries, which are likely to be relatively sedentary. This is important for the point made in this post.

A lowest-mortality BMI of 26 is somehow at odds with the fact that many healthy and/or long-living populations have much lower BMIs. You can clearly see this in the distribution of BMIs among males in Kitava and Sweden shown in the graph below, from a study by Lindeberg and colleagues (). This distribution is shifted in such a way that would suggest a much lower BMI of lowest-mortality among the Kitavans, assuming a U-curve shape similar to that observed in studies of populations from developed countries ().



Another relevant example comes from the China Study II (see, e.g., ), which is based on data from 8000 adults. The average BMI in the China Study II dataset, with data from the 1980s, is approximately 21; for an average weight that is about 116 lbs. That BMI is relatively uniform across Chinese counties, including those with the lowest mortality rates. No county has an average BMI that is 26; not even close. This also supports the idea that Chinese people were, at least during that period, relatively thin.

Now take a look at the graph below, also based on the China Study II dataset, from a previous post (), relating total daily calorie intake with longevity. I should note that the relationship between total daily calorie intake and longevity depicted in this graph is not really statistically significant. Still, the highest longevity seems to be in the second tercile of total daily calorie intake.



Again, the average weight in the dataset is about 116 lbs. A conservative estimate of the number of calories needed to maintain this weight without any physical activity would be about 1740. Add about 700 calories to that, for a reasonable and healthy level of physical activity, and you get 2440 calories needed daily for weight maintenance. That is right in the middle of the second tercile, the one with the highest longevity.

What does this have to do with the lowest-mortality BMI of 26 from studies of samples from developed countries? Populations in these countries are likely to be relatively sedentary, at least on average, in which case a low BMI will be associated with a low total calorie intake. And a low total calorie intake will lead to a low intake of nutrients needed by the body to fight disease.

And don’t think you can fix this problem by consuming lots of vitamin and mineral pills. When I refer here to a higher or lower nutrient intake, I am not talking only about micronutrients, but also about macronutrients (fatty and amino acids) in amounts that are needed by your body. Moreover, important micronutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins, cannot be properly absorbed without certain macronutrients, such as fat.

Industrial nutrient isolation for supplementation use has not been a very successful long-term strategy for health optimization (). On the other hand, this type of supplementation has indeed been found to have had modest-to-significant success in short-term interventions aimed at correcting acute health problems caused by severe nutritional deficiencies ().

So the "BMI=26 phenomenon" may be a reflection not of a direct effect of high muscularity on health, but of an indirect effect mediated by a high intake of needed nutrients among sedentary folks. This may be so even though the lowest mortality is for the combination of that BMI with a relatively small waist (), which suggests some level of muscularity, but not necessarily serious bodybuilder-level muscularity. High muscularity, of the serious bodybuilder type, is not very common; at least not enough to significantly sway results based on the analysis of large samples.

The combination of a BMI=26 with a relatively small waist is indicative of more muscle and less body fat. Having more muscle and less body fat has an advantage that is rarely discussed. It allows for a higher total calorie intake, and thus a higher nutrient intake, without an unhealthy increase in body fat. Muscle mass increases one's caloric requirement for weight maintenance, more so than body fat. Body fat also increases that caloric requirement, but it also acts like an organ, secreting a number of hormones into the bloodstream, and becoming pro-inflammatory in an unhealthy way above a certain level.

Clearly having a low body fat percentage is associated with lower incidence of degenerative diseases, but it will likely lead to a lower intake of nutrients relative to one’s needs unless other factors are present, e.g., being fairly muscular or physically active. Chronic low nutrient intake tends to get people closer to the afterlife like nothing else ().

In this sense, having a BMI=26 and being relatively sedentary (without being skinny-fat) has an effect that is similar to that of having a BMI=21 and being fairly physically active. Both would lead to consumption of more calories for weight maintenance, and thus more nutrients, as long as nutritious foods are eaten.

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