Is there such thing as fit but fat? Large but lively? Chunky but chipper? With almost 70% of the US adult population falling into the overweight or obese category, scale numbers are becoming a touchy subject. Furthermore, hinting to the 70% that their spare tire may not be healthy for them is often met with vitriol, delusional reaffirmation, and/or a jar of jelly beans to the face.
“Spending 40 hours a week in the gym isn’t healthy, either, Rick.” or “I am just big boned.” or ”Even though I am overweight, I exercise, so I am healthy.” It’s hard to blame people for this type of attitude. Losing weight is hard. According to some research, long-term weight loss can have as high as a 80-90% failure rate. People can’t lose weight, so they look for reasons to justify the status quo. There’s a problem with that, though. Evidence is starting to show that excess fat maybe isn’t just more “cushion for the pushing”, but rather “more cushion for an ambulance ride to the ER”.
A Lesson in Fat Physiology
Why is too much body fat unhealthy anyway? Because it puts oneself at risk for slamming fat folds in their car door? Maybe. Or, because excess body fat can cause high blood pressure, and lead to cardiovascular problems? Sure, but that is mostly incidental.
Fat or adipose tissue is actually considered an endocrine organ because it secretes hormones. These hormones known as cytokines or adipokines are often pro-inflammatory and promote insulin resistance, both of which contribute to vascular damage, elevated blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome. There are adipokines that are anti-inflammatory in nature, but pro-inflammatory adipokines are overrepresented in individuals that are overweight and obese. The resulting low-grade chronic inflammation is a major driver of modern disease states and with 70% of the population holding excess body fat, that is an incredible amount of inflammation.
The Overweight and Obesity study
“But, I exercise regularly so that has to account for something, right?” There are many benefits to exercise that can be realized by every type of person. What recent research has shown though, is despite exercise, there is no healthy level of overweight and obesity. Even individuals with healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels were at 26-28% increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) than someone with a healthy weight.
Over a period of 12 years, the researchers found instances of CHD in 7,637 individuals. Here is more from an article discussing the research:
“Body weight was classified according to definitions from the World Health Organization. Those with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 were classed as obese, while those with a BMI of 25-30 were classed as overweight, and 18.5-25 as normal weight. More than half of the control group (63 percent) were female, with an average age of 53.6 and an average BMI of 26.1.
Participants were categorised as 'unhealthy' if they had three or more of a number of metabolic markers, including high blood pressure, blood glucose, or triglyceride levels, low levels of HDL cholesterol, or a waist size of more than 37" (94 cm) for men and 31" (80 cm) for women.
After adjusting for lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, exercise and socioeconomic status, the researchers found that compared to the healthy normal weight group, those classed as unhealthy had more than double the risk of CHD, whether they were normal weight, overweight or obese.
However, analysis also revealed that within the apparently healthy group there was a significant difference in outcomes for people depending on their weight. The research found that compared to those at normal weight, people who were classified as healthy but were overweight had an increased CHD risk of 1.26 (26 percent), while those who were healthy but obese had an increased risk of 1.28 (28 percent).”
Permabulking for Your Goals
Like most research done for large populations, body mass index (BMI) was used to discern healthy and unhealthy weight levels. Unfortunately, for us meatheads that carry an appreciable amount of muscle, we may be classified as obese but could grate a block of cheese over our abs. It is easy to look at an individual and see that if they have six-pack abs but are classified as overweight, the BMI measure isn’t really applicable to them.
Where it gets a little more hazy, is when someone is quite muscular but also carries plenty of fat. This is colloquially known as the “powerlifter” look. This person exercises, probably even eats healthy, and has a pretty decent metabolism because of the muscle. But, are they healthy? Well, according to the aforementioned research, they are likely at significantly greater risk than a healthy-weight person for CHD.
I realize everyone has goals they want to reach, and strength goals may mean sacrificing a healthy body composition in some instances, but I think it is important that those individuals know there are risks involved with that fat gain. Really, everyone should know the risks involved with having too much fat. Unfortunately, we have Twinkies plugging our ears and towers of Oreos blocking our vision because 70% of us aren’t getting that message.
Eat a little bit less and move a little bit more because that spare tire may just be a ticking time bomb.