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Christina Berndt

Being overweight is unhealthy. The medical community never tires of predicting an early demise for obese people, and strongly urging them to lose weight. But in fact, the latest science says that fat people live longer and can tolerate higher levels of stress.

"The classic view is that obesity is an illness that has to be cured," says Professor Achim Peters of the University of Lübeck in Germany. "But it’s not an illness. In fact, it’s even a good thing."

The obesity specialist has been fighting this stigmatizing view of obesity for years. His own body mass index (B.M.I.) of 23 puts him in the normal weight category, so the issue does not personally concern him. Along with neuroscience professor Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University in New York, he has developed a theory known as the "obesity paradox" (Physiology and Behavior, Vol. 106, p. 1, 2012), according to which obesity is a healthy way of managing stress.

The foundation of the theory is Peters' notion of the “selfish brain” in which the brain will claim the energy it needs from the body, even if that puts the body at risk. In cases of extreme hunger, inner organs, for example, lose up to 40% of their weight, but the brain loses only 1%.

When people are not stressed, their brains use 50% of their body’s glucose, and this rises to 90% under stressful conditions. With obese people, however, according to the theory, the brain is short-changed because the body is building fatty deposits instead. Because it is not getting the glucose it wants, the brain must increase its energy demands. The fat person eats more to cover the selfish brain’s needs, but again only a small portion of these calories go to the brain, and the rest goes into building fat deposits.

Hence, according to this theory, obese people cannot help being obese. It is their body’s reaction to chronic stress.

Big bottom protection

The longevity of overweight people first came to researchers’ attention in 1999 when Edmund Lowrie at the University of California in San Francisco noticed that his thinner dialysis patients died before the overweight ones. It then came to light that even obese people who have suffered heart attacks live longer, with the same holding true after major operations, sepsis, strokes, brain hemorrhage, even in patients suffering from rheumatism and cancer. The obese patients always came out ahead, even if their B.M.I. was as high as 30, which would mean that a person 1.70 meters (5.6 feet) tall weighs 85 kilos (187 lbs).

The important distinction was whether the corpulent person was carrying the extra weight around the waist. That type of fatness, which surrounds the inner organs, is indeed life-threatening as soon as a man’s waist reaches 102 centimeters (40 inches) and a woman’s 88 centimeters (34.6 inches). But heavy arms and legs, hips and bottom act more as a form of protection than a threat.

In 2010, an experiment involving 27,000 Danes with higher B.M.I.s bore this out, as did a 15-year-long experiment, conducted by Australian and Scandinavian scientists, with 8,000 inhabitants of Mauritius (International Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 41, p. 484, 2012).

"Being overweight is not as dangerous as was previously thought," says health researcher Ingrid Mühlhauser of the University of Hamburg. Her study of Germans with a B.M.I. of around 27 shows they have a longer life expectancy than people with a B.M.I. of 20 (58 kilos or 128 lbs at 1.70 meters or 5.6 feet). Overweight people do have a greater tendency to heart problems or diabetes but not stroke, says Mühlhauser. And B.M.I.s over 35 continue to be highly dangerous. "The highest life expectancy is when there’s a B.M.I. of 27," she says.

Being thin is a predisposition

According to Peters, the only way to lose weight is to lower stress levels. Part of that stress is caused by the negative view society has of obese people. According to Dr. Thomas Ellrott of the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Nutrition Psychology, 14% of Germans said that if they were employers they would not hire overweight people. "Stigmatization not only doesn’t help fat people, it makes the problem worse."

Says Peters, "The answers you are usually given for the causes of obesity are lack of willpower, immoderation, greed, laziness.” Yet recent data have shown that overweight people exercise a great deal more cognitive control over their eating behavior than other people do.

Being thin is a predisposition, not an achievement, and for thin people gaining weight is as difficult as it is for fat ones to lose it. People with sleep disturbances or money troubles, or who are under constant pressure, should not add to their problems by worrying about a few extra pounds, berating themselves for their lack of self-discipline, Peters says. It might help to remember that thin, overly stressed people are far worse off. "I always ask myself: am I thin and relaxed, or thin and under pressure,” Peters says. "If the latter, I’m in the worst category."

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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