There’s a new research study that says it’s OK to be fat, because you still can be healthy. It also reported that you can be lean and unhealthy. When I saw the headlines, my first thought was, “Here we go again – one step forward, two steps back.”
Seeing this news, folks who have been working hard to lose weight, improve their diet and be more physically active may now decide to go back to the couch with their chips and dip.
Please don’t, and I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t. But first, I’ll admit, depending on how you look at it, it’s possible to be fat and still be healthy. But there are several qualifiers that must be considered and it can get pretty complicated. The important thing is that you understand there is more to the story of being “fat and healthy” than simply being fat.
Qualifier No. 1: Who is fat?
When scientists engage in this type of population-based research that requires collecting information on a large number of subjects, they often are limited in the methods they can use. This, in turn, can affect the accuracy of the results.
For example, how can you tell if someone is fat or not? The precise way would require performing a body-fat test, such as the hydrostatic (underwater) weighing procedure. But this is expensive and time-consuming and would be impractical for so many subjects.
Scientists must resort to simple approaches, such as the body mass index, which is a ratio of weight divided by height. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight (fat), and 30 and above is obese. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
But hold on a second. For most of my adult life, I have weighed 210 pounds at 6 feet 2 inches tall, and I have sustained a good portion of the muscle mass I put on in my early years of weight training. But my BMI of 27 would indicate that I am overweight (fat) and not far from obese.
This is in spite of my low percentage of fat to body weight, trim waist, daily exercise, vegetarian diet and low blood pressure and serum cholesterol. My results would support the headlines, because I would qualify as being both fat and healthy.
Conclusion: Many of the folks studied who are assumed to be fat are not.
Qualifier No. 2: How you wear your fat is important.
What is it about body fat that is unhealthy? When there is excess fat around the waist, it destroys health in a number of ways.
The main problem is metabolic syndrome – interference with the ability to clear the bloodstream of sugar (glucose). Insulin is a hormone that helps move glucose out of the blood and into the tissues. Excess abdominal fat causes insulin resistance, which reduces the effectiveness of insulin to help transport glucose.
In turn, glucose lingers in the blood and accumulates. When blood glucose gets too high and stays there, it is called diabetes.
It also causes the body to secrete an excessive amount of insulin in an attempt to overcome the resistance. Excess insulin causes its own set of problems, including high blood pressure.
Since abdominal fat is the key, what about those who have excess body fat, but not around the waist? The perfect example is females who tend to store fat on the lower body – the hips, thighs and buttocks. We know that women can store a huge number of pounds of fat on the lower body without negative effects on health, like metabolic syndrome.
Conclusion: Women with excess lower body fat fit the description of being fat based upon their BMI, and yet still would be healthy.
Qualifier No. 3: Exercise.
Exercise is a great equalizer. Exercise causes the body to be more sensitive to the effects of insulin. This means if you carry excess body fat but exercise regularly, you may be able to offset the bad effects: increased blood sugar and high blood pressure.
Conclusion: Those who exercise regularly could fit the “fat and healthy” headline.
Next week, I’ll discuss more qualifiers that make it clear there’s more to being fat and healthy than simply being fat.
Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431