By Richard Tardif
It’s not how much we weigh that is the real culprit to health and longevity, but the fat roosting deep in our midsections, above the belt or below it, termed “overfat” and 76 percent of us (5.5 billion) may be overfat, something more diabolical and deadlier than being “overweight” and maybe, “obese”.
“The overfat category includes normal-weight people with increased risk factors for chronic disease, such as high abdominal fat, and those with characteristics of a condition called normal-weight metabolic obesity,” Dr. Phillip Maffetone, the lead author of Overfat and Underfat: New Terms and Definitions Long Overdue, published in January in the Frontiers of Public Health Journal.
“Overfat” refers to having sufficient excess body fat to impair health. This type of fat, referred to as visceral fat, slowly wraps around your vital organs, precisely the type that might be hiding in people who are “overfat”, but not “overweight” even if they fit into the “normal weight” category. And men (90 percent), more than women (80 percent) and 50 percent of children studied in 30 developed countries, exercisers and athletes alike, according to the premise of the research, are “overfat”. While “overfat” is not the same as being overweight or obese, the health consequences are the same, but being “overfat” increases the risk.
To determine if you are “overfat”, Dr. Maffetone recommends taking a measure of the waistline and comparing it to height. It means a 30-year-old man who is an average height of 5ft 10 inches, or 70 inches, should have a waist no more than 35 inches. This could replace the terms “overweight” and “obese” as governed by the traditional Body Mass Index (BMI), which misses about 50 percent of the people who still have dangerous amounts of fat, the research argues.
Reaction to the research has been mixed. For some health professionals, the study isn’t ground breaking and overcomplicates the matter. “We found a new term to bounce back and forth and explain to our clients and debate on social media,” says Farrell Kaufman, a Barefoot Training specialist and Master Trainer at Montreal’s UNI TRAINING. “No one is breaking new ground here. This isn’t new testing. This idea is pruning the leaves instead of seeing if the roots are sick.”
Indeed, where fat is stored and its associated health consequences has been studied since the 1980s, and isn’t new, and sometimes in conflict with traditional thinking of fat. Some Extra Heft May Be Helpful, a 2005 Study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that people who are overweight but not obese have a lower risk of death than those of normal weight, and in the same year statisticians and epidemiologists from the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that increased risk of death from obesity was seen for the most part in the extremely obese, a group constituting at the time only eight percent of Americans. Confused?
“Not everyone will realize why the BMI index of height to weight falters as an indicator,” says Helen Neves, a personal trainer with a BSc in Exercise Science from Concordia University, and also a Master Instructor at the YMCA in Montreal. “Weight on a scale is a number for weight against gravity without distinguishing true fat mass from fat free mass.”
Bodyweight on a scale doesn’t differentiate between how much muscle someone has versus how much fat they’re carrying around. It’s the fat versus lean mass that really gives you an indication of how healthy you are. Neves isn’t certain if people will realize why the term “overfat” is used versus “overweight”. “Why it is a good change versus seeing it as a label?”
For some health professionals, this is a very small step in the right direction and raises awareness. “The term is more specific, and the criteria has become a little more rounded,” says Zackery Finley, owner of Mouvnation based in Dorval, Quebec. “When the solution comes it will not come from these tired, old boring universities and experts but rather from maverick companies like BLOCK Workout, Strongfirst or even dare I say, Crossfit.”
The solution, in the end, is to lose the gut. People who exercise regularly can increase the lean body mass and decrease their overall fat level. With the proper combination of diet and exercise, consistency and mindful eating, both excess fat and overall weight can be reduced.
“The study doesn’t state how they are measuring body fat levels,” says Kingston, Ontario’s Coach Taylor Simon, who specializes in program design and periodization for athletes and sports teams. “But if accurate, it’s definitely far better and more predicative of health issues than the BMI scale.”
Wherever the solution comes from, in Canada it better come fast. According to recent data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, 26.7 percent of Canadians were classified obese in 2015, up from 23.1 percent in 2004. The survey measured obesity as having a BMI of 30 or higher, which, according to the “overfat” study is an ineffective measure of the problem.
Dr. Maffetone and his co-authors also report that nine to 10 percent of the world population may be “underfat”, a state of having too little fat. “While we think of the condition of underfat as being due to starvation, those worldwide numbers are dropping rapidly,” Dr. Maffetone explains. “However, an aging population, an increase in chronic disease and a rising number of excessive exercisers or those with anorexia athletica, are adding to the number of non-starving underfat individuals.” The catch-all terms “overfat” and “underfat” describe new body composition states. “We hope the terms help create substantive improvements in world health.”
How concerned should we be about being overfat? Underfat? Excessive fat is a killer, and it’s a heads-up for people who don’t think they’re at a health risk due to having a normal BMI, but actually have dangerous levels of visceral fat hiding in their bodies.
It’s teaching us to look at our bodies beyond the number on the scale. If you rely solely on BMI, you’re not getting the full story, including what your real risk is for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Having this knowledge can promote mindful eating, as one client told me, “If I’m preparing something unhealthy, I’m going to be thinking of the fat wrapping around my organs, and that of my kids.”
Overweight, obese and overfat are critically important health threats, and being heavy is a risk you do not want to take.
“It’s a lot of percentages and numbers,” says Sarah Khatri, a Nutrition Consultant based n Montreal, Quebec, “but in the end, people are overweight or overfat (as per this study) and the dangers are real for our health. Everybody benefits from a healthier diet and from daily exercise! No question about it.”
Richard Tardif is a personal fitness trainer, life coach and health journalist who has been writing about health and wellness for over 20 years. As someone who has struggled with his own weight issues, Richard’s mission is to shed light on the misinformation propagated by the fitness industry, and empower people to take back responsibility for their health. He is also finalizing his debut book, Stop the Denial: A Case for Embracing the Truth about Fitness, published by Smiling Eye Press.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the author or Smiling Eye Press take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, nor any exercise described in this article taken without a personal trainer involved constitutes repsonsibility for injury, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment or training, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.