Fat and Fit: Disconnect between body fat and "being healthy"


People tend to make judgments about heath based on body fat. The more excess body fat a person has, the more unhealthy they must be- right? Well, not necessarily.

It’s actually possible for someone who is overweight to be considered “healthier” than someone who is a “healthy weight.”

A new study conducted by U.S and European researchers, published by the European Heart Journal, found that overweight and obese people were at no greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease or cancer, compared with normal weight people, as long as they were “metabolically fit.”

Out of the study that examined data on 43,265 participants, obese participants were categorized as “metabolically healthy” if they didn’t suffer from insulin resistance, diabetes, low levels of good cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure.

When compared with obese people who had at least two of the above markers of poor health, the metabolically fit people had a 38% lower risk of death from any cause.

So what does this mean? A person’s level of physical fitness, in addition to his or her weight, matters too. Making the age-old measure of one’s health using BMI (Body Mass Index), an inadequate measurement by itself.

This does not however, mean being overweight in general is healthy. Study co-author Dr. Timothy Church, director of the Laboratory of Preventive Medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge says, “Weight is a major issue when it’s combined with a metabolic abnormality. When you have weight plus insulin resistance, weight plus hypertension, weight plus abnormal cholesterol — then you have an issue. Obviously the more overweight and the more obese you are, the more likely you are to have a metabolic abnormality.”

There is a disconnect between what people perceive as healthy on the outside, and what is actually healthy on the inside.

For example, people love promoting crazy diets that basically consist of starving oneself. These diet promotions are usually followed by lots of pictures of skinny, seemingly healthy looking people. But if someone is only dieting, and not working out they are only loosing weight, and not necessarily becoming any healthier.

“They’re not physically active. They have horrible and restrictive diets. They might not be overweight, but metabolically they’re a mess,” says Church.

Although overly restrictive diets, often times resulting in transient, unsustainable, modest weight loss without significant health benefits, are not the answer a healthy diet is recommended for weight loss.

A Danish study in 2012, showed that exercise alone doesn’t lead to sufficient weight loss. One reason for this is because people often times over-compensate their workouts by eating more food. The healthiest way to lose weight is a combination of healthy diet restrictions and moderate exercise.

The takeaway message is: be more active. Stop focusing so much on what your body looks like on the outside, and start focusing on what it’s doing on the inside. It doesn’t take an excessive amount of work to be considered “fit.” Federal guidelines recommend at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intense aerobic exercise a week. These recommendations can easily be met by 30 minutes of daily walking.



“A person with greater than ideal weight but good physical fitness would have a greater muscle to fat ratio than a non fit person of the same weight, which helps explain the paradox of longevity among the “obese” fit. In addition to longevity benefits, physical fitness is associated with lower medical care expenses and improved quality of life. That’s why many health care plans cover gym memberships. But don’t expect a lean body from exercise alone. Research has shown that exercise without dietary restraint does not result in weight loss.”