| | Reality Check: We’re Too Fat

Author / Ben Skutnik

9 - 12 minute read

Emotions are the curse of logic. 

Frank Herbert

If the applicant is young, we tell him he’s too young. If he’s fat, he’s too fat. If he’s old, he’s too old. Thin, he’s too thin.

Tyler Durden

According to the most recent statistics, 40% of you need to lose weight.[1] Read that again. It doesn’t say 40% of you should lose a couple pounds. The data says that 40% of America’s adults 20 years and older NEED to lose weight because roughly 40% of us are obese. While that is scary enough, what’s scarier is an overwhelming initiative from the health and fitness influencers to embrace your body despite what the numbers may say. But injecting emotion into a logic-based discussion allows for a lack of accountability. 

Graph describing the increase in obesity over time
Significant linear trend. SOURCE: NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2018

Everything that comes with obesity, including the increased risk of every cardiovascular or metabolic disease, does not rely on your emotional state regarding your body. To be clear, I am not promoting fat-shaming or poor body images, I am promoting honest conversation around a very real, very serious, but very controllable issue: we are too fat for our own good.

While being generally healthy is something we should all strive to be, it’s a very unsexy outcome. I get it. But let’s look at some more appealing reasons why you need to be honest with yourself. And that’s what this article will be. An honest conversation about how to objectively measure the change you need to make.

Why Does This Matter?

Adipose tissue causes low-grade systemic inflammation (LGSI). What this means is that with every increase in body fat each system and process in your body becomes slightly more disrupted. 

Looking to gain some lean muscle? Too much body fat is going to disrupt that. [2] Trying to heal that nagging injury? [3] Too much body fat is going to disrupt that. Looking to improve your gut? Too much body fat is going to disrupt that. [4] Regardless of the title...being obese, fat, overweight, hefty...too much adipose tissue is a serious, but controllable, problem. 

So how do you know if it's a problem you need to solve? First, you need to detach any emotions you might have attached to the idea. If you are fat, which the data suggests many of us are, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Being an asshole makes you an asshole. Being obese just means you’re fat.

How to Quantify Being Obese? 

The obesity statistics are often debated and this is largely due to the methods of defining obesity. Primarily, the measure of Body Mass Index (BMI) and it’s efficacy. The BMI scale, which originated in 1830, was pushed to the forefront of health studies by the polarizing physiologist Ancel Keys in 1972 as a response to insurance companies relying solely on body weight as a measure of risk. [5] 

Keys proposed BMI because it included the height of the individual. The scale requires two measures: weight and height (kg/m^2 or ((lbs)/(in^2))x703). And because of this, Keys notes that this measure is best used on a population-based level, meaning to canvas thousands of individuals and easily categorize them.


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Scaling BMI 

Being a population-based measurement has been at the core of the argument against using the BMI to classify individuals. And, at face value, that is a worthwhile argument. Taller people will weigh more than shorter people, right? More muscle bound folks will weigh more than fat folks, right? In fact, it’s such a strong argument that scientists have tested the validity of the BMI scale against smaller cohorts, ultimately asking “Can BMI be applied on an individual level?” And, despite the strong logic, the BMI equation is still pretty accurate on an individual level. [6] 

The data shows that body composition scales pretty closely with height. And, while muscle is 18% more dense than fat, that means a 10% swing would only result in a 1.8% change of BMI. That means if you are currently 6’ tall and 215lbs with 15% body fat, you’d have to lean out to 5% body fat AND pack on 22lbs of muscle at the same time to push your BMI from “Overweight” to “Obese”. 

That’s not happening. 

A picture of a man measuring his waist girth with a retractable measuring tape.

Secondary Measure 

If you’re above a 35 on the BMI scale, the data says you should lose weight. Now, let’s say you’re “that guy/girl”. You are just above a 30 on the BMI scale and you’re convinced it’s because you’re jacked. The next step would be to measure your waist. That is, measure your body at belly button level while relaxing. 

If you’re between BMIs of 30-35 and you have a ≥40in (men) or ≥35in (women) waist, that’s no bueno. This, according to the data, indicates that you might be carrying a higher than normal adipose tissue in your abdomen. [7] If that’s true, you’re at a greater risk for all cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. But what if it’s not true? What if you’ve got the power belly? 

The Final Checkpoint 

So you’re BMI is a little high and you’ve got a power belly. But you crush workouts six times a week and are seemingly healthy. Do you still need to lose weight? To answer this, we’ve got to go one layer deeper; enter the Edmonton Obesity Staging System (EOSS). [8] While these measures aren’t as easy to attain as height and weight, they paint a clearer picture of actual health. But what does it mean? 

A modified version of the Edmonton Obesity Staging System showing only the qualifications for Stages 0 through 2
Stages 0 and 1 require only lifestyle modifications (diet and exercise), Stage 2 and beyond may require medical interventions.

The beauty of the EOSS is it brings in a second possibility: don’t gain any more weight. If you’re someone who is above a 30 BMI and has a larger waist but falls in the EOSS stages of 0 or 1, you might be alright. You don’t have any of the obesity-related diseases yet. 

Instead of focusing on losing weight, you can simply focus on not gaining any more. 

Going Forward 

If you’re one of the lucky few with good blood work despite the other markers of obesity, simply stick to our Eat with Abandon list and hop on the training plan that works best for your time and equipment access.

If you’re part of the majority of folks who fall outside of that category, you’ve got a decision to make. You can either bury your head in the sand, deny the truth, and let Father Time catch up with you. Or, you can take action. You can swallow the hard pill of reality and admit that you can’t do it alone. Invest in a nutrition coach to help hold you accountable and take the steps necessary to not be a part of the problem anymore. 

Because you already knew you needed to change, so wasting $40 on another macronutrient template is just a feigned attempt for you to make yourself feel like you are in the fight, you have been trying.

Quit trying, start doing.

If you’re someone who is ready to make change happen, ready to take back your health, and ready to start truly unlocking your potential, hit us up and will steer you towards your goals.

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Sources

[1] Hales CM, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and severe obesity among adults: United States, 2017–2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 360. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020

[2] Peterson, M., Liu, D., Gordish-Dressman, H. et al. Adiposity attenuates muscle quality and the adaptive response to resistance exercise in non-obese, healthy adults. Int J Obes 35, 1095–1103 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2010.257

[3] Wearing, S. C., Hennig, E. M., Byrne, N. M., Steele, J. R., & Hills, A. P. (2006). Musculoskeletal disorders associated with obesity: a biomechanical perspective. Obesity reviews, 7(3), 239-250.

[4] Turnbaugh, P. J. (2017). Microbes and diet-induced obesity: fast, cheap, and out of control. Cell host & microbe, 21(3), 278-281.

[5] Keys, A., Fidanza, F., Karvonen, M. J., Kimura, N., & Taylor, H. L. (1972). Indices of relative weight and obesity. Journal of chronic diseases, 25(6-7), 329-343.

[6] Heymsfield, S. B., Gallagher, D., Mayer, L., Beetsch, J., & Pietrobelli, A. (2007). Scaling of human body composition to stature: new insights into body mass index. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 86(1), 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/86.1.82

[7] NHLBI Obesity Education Initiative Expert Panel on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Obesity in Adults (US). Clinical Guidelines on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults: The Evidence Report. Bethesda (MD): National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; 1998 Sep. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK2003/

[8] Canning, K. L., Brown, R. E., Wharton, S., Sharma, A. M., & Kuk, J. L. (2015). Edmonton obesity staging system prevalence and association with weight loss in a publicly funded referral-based obesity clinic. Journal of obesity, 2015.

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AUTHOR

Ben Skutnik

Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.

Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.

2 Comments

  1. Brett Bolus on June 7, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    I’d be interested in a similar article covering having too low a body fat % for an extended period of time and the detriments that it can potentially lead to. I’m sure there are a few fitness enthusiast that aren’t aware that maintaining sub-“X” 5 body fat for extended periods of time can lead to XYZ (depression, fatigue, joint stiffness, injury?).

    • Ben Skutnik, PhD(c), CSCS, PN1 on June 7, 2020 at 7:23 pm

      Brett,

      You’re reading my mind and you’re absolutely spot on! Being too lean can completely ravage your system. If you’ve ever been backstage at a figure show you know what I mean. Stay tuned to hear the other side of this coin!

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