Could You Be Overfat and Not Know It?
What does that mean?
For the researchers, anyone who is overweight and obese is considered overfat. But the term also includes those who are classified as normal weight and have a larger percentage of body fat than is healthy. For a woman, that means 15 percent and up to 30 percent of her body weight is fat, says Ava Port, MD, an endocrinologist at the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology.
Doctors also factor in where you store the fat. "Fat that's gummed up around your midsection and organs is different than fat in your hip and thigh region," says Port. People with a lot of this fat—called visceral fat—are known as apple-shaped.
Belly fat behaves differently than the stuff in your hips, says Robert Kushner, MD, an internal medicine doctor specializing in weight loss at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
"Abdominal fat sends hormones and other signals to the rest of your body, increasing inflammation and prompting organs not to work properly," he says. It's associated with higher blood pressure and cholesterol and poorer blood-sugar control. Over time, this increases risk of chronic disease, like heart disease and diabetes.
How to know if you are overfat?
The traditional way to measure body fat is by using the BMI chart, a height-to-weight calculation. Having a BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight, and it's the point where chronic disease risk starts to climb. As you may know, though, there are flaws to BMI. Namely, if you're superactive and have a lot of muscle, the BMI chart may tell you you're overweight. Oops. And, of course, it doesn't tell you your body shape.
Some at-home scales can analyze body composition through bioelectrical impedance, which measures how fast or slow a current travels through the fat and muscle. However, because how much water you drank the day before can skew the results, you'll want to pay more attention to the numbers over a span of time—not one day—to get a clearer picture of where you stand, says Tonya Turner, a registered dietitian at the Medical University of South Carolina Health Weight Management Center.
Another option is a caliper, a handheld tool some gyms use to estimate percentages of body fat for fitness assessments. Though results can vary depending on the person who's using it.
So Port says the best and easiest way for anyone to assess if they're overfat is to look at their body shape and to measure waist circumference. "Waist circumference has the strongest evidence for correlating with fat mass," says Port. US guidelines advise women to stay under 35 inches.
There's one caveat, however. If you're thin, with a waist-measurement under 35 inches, but your waist is larger proportionately compared to your frame, you can still be overfat—especially if you eat mostly junk and aren't active. "I've seen this in skinny patients," says Port. "They don't exercise and they have an unhealthy diet. These things might not be a problem now because they're young, but they're setting themselves up for problems like loss of muscle mass and high blood pressure as they age."
What to do if you are overfat?
These three things will help target fat loss—specifically that dangerous belly fat:
When you're at the gym, head to the weight room. A 2015 study found resistance exercise to be better than cardio for losing fat, building muscle and reducing triglycerides, "bad" LDL cholesterol and blood sugar, measures that are associated with being overfat and increase your risk for chronic diseases.
Make sure you're eating enough protein (about 60 to 80 grams daily), but also round out your diet with complex carbs (sweet potatoes, whole grains) and healthy fat (avocado, olive oil), says Turner. The idea is to lose weight, certainly; but, more important is where that weight loss comes from. You want to shed fat while preserving muscle mass, which you can do by eating adequate protein, and getting good-for-you sources of carbs will keep your energy up, especially during exercise.
If the numbers on your scale aren't budging, focus on other milestones. Think about your waist circumference and how your clothes fit. And the efforts you're making towards supporting and improving your health. "The measure we use all the time is 'fitness,'" says Kushner. "We spend a lot of time asking patients how fit are you? Fitness trumps fatness in many cases."
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