A common New Year's resolution is to get in shape and drop a few pounds, but a new review of published studies suggests that people who are carrying a few extra pounds tend to live longer than their leaner counterparts.

The review, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at dozens of studies on body mass index (BMI) and mortality risks, and found that people who were classified as obese face an overall 18 per cent increased risk of death compared to the risk faced by persons of "normal" weight.

But researchers also found that people who were classified as overweight were found to have a "significantly lower" risk of death than those of normal weight.

"Sometimes that surprises people, but they really should not be too surprised because in our categories of these 97 studies, 80 per cent of them show that there was lower mortality in overweight than in normal weight people," said lead author Dr. Katherine Flegal, of the U.S. National Centre for Health Statistics.

The researchers found that the relative mortality risk is six per cent lower for overweight individuals (with a BMI between 25 and 30) and five per cent lower for obese individuals with a BMI between 30 and 35 when compared against the mortality risk of individuals of normal weight.

Researchers don't know why that is, but suggest that a small amount of fat may provide needed energy during acute illnesses, or have some benefit with a traumatic injury.

Flegal's team said another possible explanation is that heavier patients may seek out medical advice or treatment for new conditions sooner than lighter individuals.

The researchers also found that extremely obese individuals face a 29 per cent increased risk of death.

The study, titled Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories, was co-authored by University of Ottawa adjunct professor and Public Health Agency of Canada researcher Dr. Heather Orpana, and researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute.

The meta-analysis of 97 studies provided the researchers with combined data from just under three million people, and covered more than 270,000 deaths.

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  • Avocado

    "Instead of using a whopping dollop of mayonnaise on your sandwich, try using thin slices of avocado," suggests Megan Madden, a registered dietitian in New York, NY. A 1996 study done by researchers in Mexico found that people who ate avocado every day for one week experienced an average 17 percent drop in total blood cholesterol. What's more, their levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol decreased and HDL ("good") cholesterol increased.

  • Whole Grains

    The soluble fiber found in whole grains such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal binds the cholesterol in your meal and drags it out of your body, Madden says. "And, when your body needs to utilize cholesterol in the future, it draws on your blood cholesterol supply, effectively lowering your total blood cholesterol level and your risk for heart disease." And oatmeal isn’t just for breakfast; you can enjoy it any time of day with these easy recipes.

  • Olive Oil

    A 2011 study found that people ages 65 or older who regularly used olive oil (for both cooking and as a dressing) were 41 percent less likely to have a stroke compared to those who never use olive oil in their diet. Use a little olive oil instead of butter or drizzle some over pasta, salad or veggies to take advantage of its high mono- and polyunsaturated fats, Madden says. "And although it’s a healthier option, remember to use these oils sparingly, as all fats still contain the same number of calories."

  • Nuts

    Grabbing a handful of nuts is a heart-healthy way to beat the afternoon itch for a cookie, Madden says. "Almonds are very high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamin E and fiber, while walnuts are a great plant-based source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid." According to the American Heart Association, monounsaturated fats can help reduce levels of bad cholesterol in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Foods Fortified By Plant Sterols

    Sterols are compounds that compete with the cholesterol in your food for absorption within your digestive tract, Madden says. "Sterols have been shown to lower both total and LDL cholesterol and can be found in certain brands of fortified orange juice, margarine spreads, and milk." Just be sure to check the label -- make sure the margarine is trans fat-free and that "partially hydrogenated oil" does <em>not</em> appear on the ingredient list.

  • Salmon (Or Other Fatty Fish)

    Fatty fish such as mackerel, herring, tuna and salmon are chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, Madden says. "Eating fish twice a week can reduce your risk of developing heart disease by decreasing inflammation and lowering triglyceride levels, and it may even help boost your HDL levels."

  • Asparagus

    Asparagus is one of the best, natural artery-clearing foods around, says Shane Ellison, an organic chemist and author of "Over-The-Counter Natural Cures". "Asparagus works within the 100,000 miles of veins and arteries to release pressure, thereby allowing the body to accommodate for inflammation that has accumulated over the years." It also helps ward off deadly clots, Ellison says.

  • Pomegranate

    Pomegranate contains phytochemicals that act as antioxidants to protect the lining of the arteries from damage, explains Dr. Gregg Schneider, a nutritionally-oriented dentist and expert on alternative medicine. A 2005 study published in the <em>Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</em> found that antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice stimulated the body’s production of nitric oxide, which helps keep blood flowing and arteries open.

  • Broccoli

    Broccoli is rich in vitamin K, which is needed for bone formation and helps to keep calcium from damaging the arteries, Schneider says. Not to mention, broccoli is full of fiber, and studies show a high-fiber diet can also help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

  • Turmeric

    "The spice turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory," Schneider says. "It contains curcumin which lowers inflammation -- a major cause of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries." A 2009 study found that curcumin helps reduce the fatty deposits in arteries by as much as 26 percent.

  • Persimmons

    Forget the old 'an apple a day' adage -- it seems eating a daily persimmon is a better way to keep the doctor away. Research shows the polyphenols found in this fruit (which has twice as much fiber and more antioxidants than an apple) can help decrease levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

  • Orange Juice

    A 2011 study published online in the <em>American Journal of Clinical Nutrition</em> found that drinking two daily cups of 100-percent orange juice can help reduce diastolic (resting) blood pressure. OJ contains an antioxidant that has been found to help improve blood vessel function.

  • Spirulina

    A daily 4,500-milligram dose of this blue-green algae (usually found in supplement or powder form) can help relax artery walls and normalize blood pressure. It may also help your liver balance your blood fat levels -- decreasing your LDL cholesterol by 10 percent and raising HDL cholesterol by 15 percent, according a recent study.

  • Cinnamon

    Just one teaspoon a day of antioxidant-rich cinnamon can help reduce fats in the bloodstream, helping to prevent plaque build up in the arteries and lower bad cholesterol levels by as much as 26 percent, according to recent research. Sprinkle some on your morning coffee or on these delicious crepes.

  • Cranberries

    Research shows that potassium-rich cranberries can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels and help raise the good HDL levels in your body, and regular consumption of the holiday favorite may help reduce your overall risk of heart disease by as much as 40 percent.

  • Coffee

    According to researchers in the Netherlands, people who drank more than two, but no more than four, cups of coffee a day for 13 years had about a 20 percent lower risk of heart disease than people who drank more or less coffee or no coffee at all. Moderation is the key to coffee's heart-health benefits -- the caffeine is a stimulant which can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure, and in excess, can lead to irregular heart beat.

  • Cheese

    Believe it or not, cheese could help lower your blood pressure! A recent study from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that people who eat three servings a day of low-fat dairy have lower (three points less) systolic blood pressure than those who eat less.

  • Green Tea

    Green tea is rich in catechins, compounds that have been shown to decrease cholesterol absorption in your body. Another bonus? It may help prevent cancer and weight gain, too!

  • Watermelon

    Talk about a perfect snack -- watermelon is not only a diet-friendly food, but it can help protect your heart, too! A Florida State University study found that people given a 4,000-milligram supplement of L-citrulline (an amino acid found in watermelon) lowered their blood pressure in just six weeks. Researchers say the amino acid helps your body produce nitric oxide, which widens blood vessels.

  • Spinach

    The potassium and folate found in spinach can help lower blood pressure, and according to recent research, one serving of nutrient-packed leafy greens (like spinach) a day can help reduce your risk of heart disease by 11 percent.

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