Explaining the obesity paradox in healthcare utilization among people with type 2 diabetes

Diabetol Int. 2021 Sep 7;13(1):232-243. doi: 10.1007/s13340-021-00530-5. eCollection 2022 Jan.


Background: Several studies of diabetes suggest an obesity paradox: persons without diabetes have an increased risk of death due to obesity, whereas obesity decreases the risk of death for people with diabetes. A recent study finds the same obesity paradox with the number of healthcare visits. Whether empirical biases and confounding lead to this paradox is yet to be determined.

Objective: To examine changes in the relationship between BMI and number of visits in diabetic vs nondiabetic populations, controlling for confounding risk factors.

Methods: Using adults in the nationally representative Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) from 2008 to 2016, N = 210,317, we examine the proposed relationship using six measures of healthcare visits with zero-inflated negative binomial regressions controlling for age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, education, region, health insurance, chronic conditions, and smoking. We excluded persons with type 1 diabetes and gestational diabetes.

Results: We find an obesity paradox among people with diabetes for three measures. That is, relative to people without diabetes, normal weight people with diabetes have more emergency room visits, inpatient, and office-based physician visits than do the obese with diabetes. However, we do not find an obesity paradox in any of the six measures once we exclude smokers and persons ever diagnosed with cancer or cardiovascular disease.

Conclusion: The obesity paradox does not exist at the utilization level and is due to the presence of statistical biases such as confounding and reverse causation. Physicians should continue to focus on efforts to prevent obesity in patients with diabetes.

Keywords: Diabetes; Healthcare utilization; Obesity; Outpatient visits.