normal weight obesity

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Did you know that the bathroom scale is still the primary means by which most Americans assess their weight? Unfortunately, this tool fails to gauge body fat levels, which—according to a growing body of evidence—may have some rather alarming health implications.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is another commonly used method to determine fitness based on weight and height, but it doesn’t measure body fat either. As a result, many Americans considered to be at a healthy weight based on their BMI actually have a high body fat percentage—which, according to the Mayo Clinic—is greater than 20% for men and 30% for women.1

Conversely, the American Council on Exercise recommends that generally fit, healthy men stay between 14-17% body fat and women between 21-24%.2 You can easily determine your ratio of body fat to lean muscle through body fat analysis—a simple test available at gyms, health clubs and medical facilities.

So, why all this concern about hidden flab? It turns out that harboring high levels of sneaky fat can have serious health consequences. In a groundbreaking study, a Mayo Clinic research team found that many subjects, despite having a BMI within “normal” parameters, had such high body fat levels that they had already developed metabolic disturbances linked to heart disease.

Normal Weight Obesity Risks

This research even sparked a new scientific term: “normal weight obesity” (NWO) to describe this new patient with an elevated risk of multiple diseases who still qualifies as “normal” by BMI. The study concluded that NWO—the combination of normal BMI and high body fat—is associated with a high prevalence of cardio-metabolic problems, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular risk factors.3

What’s even more disconcerting is that in women, NWO is independently linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease mortality. Another study in the same vein concluded that chronic inflammation in NWO increases risk of obesity, heart disease, and the metabolic syndrome in women.4

These findings offer a wake-up call for the many Americans who have long assumed that maintaining a “reasonable” weight, albeit remaining sedentary, would protect them from perils like chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and that stealthy precursor to type 2 diabetes—metabolic syndrome.

Now that the veil has been lifted, what does this mean for you? It may at least call for a question. Do you know your body fat percentage?

Relevant blogs:

  1. Childhood Obesity: What Can We Do About It?
  2. Preventing Childhood Obesity

3 Eur Heart J. 2010 Mar;31(6):737-46. Epub 2009 Nov
4 Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jan;85(1):40-5