“Overfat”: Getting to the Core of Weight-Related Health Issues

Physician measures a man’s waist circumference.

In a recently published study, obesity researchers coined a new term and gathered some extremely weighty data. Delving deeper into global population health statistics, which recently have been suggesting that obesity rates worldwide are beginning to taper off, it was found that an astonishing 76% of the world’s population may be experiencing impaired health due to excess weight. Is research evolving how we look at the global obesity epidemic?

The core of the problem: your gut. There are two types of fat cells, subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat cells are those just below the surface of the skin, which cause cellulite and dimpling. From a health standpoint, these fat cells are less of an issue than their more centrally located counterpart. Visceral fat, the adipose that accumulates around your waist and surrounds your vital organs, is particularly important when evaluating risk for chronic disease. While BMI has shown to be a pretty decent predictor of cardiovascular disease risk (the leading cause of death in the United States), studies have shown that measuring levels of visceral fat is significantly more effective, and we are beginning to discover why. Visceral fat produces more cytokines, which are proteins that influence levels of systemic inflammation. Visceral fat is also directly associated with levels of circulating angiotensin — a protein that is involved in blood vessel constriction and ultimately the regulation of blood pressure — and secretes high levels of retinol-binding protein 4, a molecule that studies have shown increases risk for metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and fatty liver disease. From an endocrinological standpoint, visceral fat also is associated with undesirable fluctuations in hormones, especially decreased secretion of leptin, the so-called “satiety hormone” that helps regulate energy balance by obstructing hunger. Even if you are well within healthy ranges according to BMI, carrying adipose around the center of your body can signal serious health issues.

For decades we’ve been focusing on the scale and the ratio of height to weight (BMI) to examine trends in weight-related health issues. In this new study, Dr. Phil Maffetone and colleagues turned their attention away from the scale and towards body fat and waist circumference as metrics to make determinations about health status. The result? Some scary data and the development of the term “overfat.” Overfat refers to one having excess body fat that can harm health, even if you fall within “healthy” weight ranges. Weight and BMI are helpful in investigating large-scale trends, but the measurements run into problems when they are used as a tool to determine individual health status, specifically for those who carry a lot of lean muscle mass or those with characteristics of normal-weight-metabolic obesity (having cardiometabolic dysregulation while being in a “healthy” weight category). Examining health data from the world’s wealthiest 30 developed nations, the researchers determined that in several of the countries, as much as 90% of adult males, 75% of adult females, and nearly 50% of children have reached body fat levels that can impair health. In most of these nations, rates of obesity among the population have remained fairly stagnant (ranging from 20-40%) for much of the past decade, while rates of chronic disease associated with cardiometabolic dysregulation (i.e., type 2 diabetes) have continued to increase at unprecedented rates. Researchers suggest that the traditional way of assessing weight-related issues simply isn’t effective in the modern world and health professionals need to develop more accurate methods to evaluate the real issue: body fat. Seeing numbers drop on the scale if you are overweight is (usually) a good thing, but we are discovering that for your health, it isn’t the only thing.

Health comes in all shapes and sizes, but that shape (generally) isn’t largest around the middle. It’s healthy to be strong, even if you are a female, and skinny doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. When scheduling your next annual physical, inquire whether your physician can not only evaluate your height and weight, but also your body composition.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.