For a loooong time, bodyweight has been the be-all, end-all of what it means to be the picture of perfect health. Just think about the terms we throw around to indicate being unhealthy ("overweight") and getting healthier ("losing weight"). Countless people pledge to drop weight each year for their New Year's resolutions in an attempt to shape up and get healthy.
What we've neglected to recognize, though, is that weight isn't the real problem. It's fat.
After all, when you imagine losing weight, you don't typically think of sloughing off some lean muscle tissue or carving off a chunk of bone; the only part of your body that you hope to lose when losing weight is fat.
That's why a just-released study proposes some new terminology to replace our current inaccurate vocab. Say goodbye to "overweight" and "underweight." Enter: "overfat" and "underfat."
What Does Overfat Mean, Exactly?
Overfat describes the problem of having excess body fat and impaired fat metabolism that directly influences your health and fitness. Underfat means the exact opposite: having too little fat, according to the study published in Frontiers in Public Health.
How are these different from being overweight and underweight? It's all about body composition, a.k.a. how any pounds of your body are fat versus how many pounds of your body are muscle, bone, organs, etc.
"Bodyweight on a scale doesn't differentiate between how much muscle someone has versus how much fat they're carrying around," says Sabrena Jo, senior exercise scientist at the American Council on Exercise. "It's the fat versus lean mass that really gives you an indication of how healthy you are."
For example, you could be super fit and have a ton of muscle, but tip the scale towards the "overweight" classification, even if you're healthy. Or the flip side: you could be considered normal weight, but actually have very little muscle and a lot of fat. But your low weight—and as a result your BMI (body mass index)—would suggest that you're totally healthy, even when you're not. (This is exactly how it's possible for the American population to be gaining fat but staying the same weight.)
That's why the current go-to method for screening someone's health—to calculate their BMI by comparing their height and weight—is being called into question. Right now, it's how health professionals decide whether someone is considered underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. That's because, when looking at a population as a whole, it is pretty good at determining someone's risk of chronic disease, says Jo. "But when it gets down to individuals and how they might approach their lifestyle choices for better health, BMI doesn't really single out how healthy a person is." (That's why one recent study even shows that the healthiest BMI is actually "overweight.")
So, Who Is Overfat?
Here's the scary part: the research suggests that about 76 percent of the world's population is considered overfat—leaving as little as 14 percent of the world's general population with normal body-fat percentages. Yikes. That huge chunk of people considered "overfat" include:
1. People who are already classified by their BMIs to be overweight and obese.
2. People who are metabolically obese, normal weight (MONW)—meaning they aren't technically overweight, but have metabolic health markers similar to an obese individual, according to the journal Nutrition & Diabetes. This could include up to 40% of normal-weight individuals, according to the research in Frontiers in Public Health. Think: what some people refer to as "skinny fat."
How do you know if you're overfat? Well, if you were looking for another reason to ditch your scale, consider this it. The much better way to check your health status is by getting a body composition evaluation (which you can find at some health fairs, fitness professionals' offices, and through a recommendation by your doc). A healthy body fat percentage ranges from 14 to 32 percent (from athlete to obese), according to the American Council on Exercise. (BTW here's more need-to-know info on fat testing.)
Or, simply measure your waist, says Jo. "Measuring waist circumference works well because there's a good correlation between how large your waist is versus how much visceral fat you're starting to accumulate, " says Jo.
Visceral fat is the dangerous kind of abdominal fat that hangs around by your internal organs and puts you at risk for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. This is precisely the type of fat that might be hiding in people who are overfat, but not overweight. Women with waist measurements of 35 inches or more have a much higher risk of dying of heart disease than those with lower waist measurements—even if they fit into the "normal weight" category, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Why This *Really* Matters to Your Health
Swapping the words "overweight" for "overfat" won't magically solve the world's obesity issues, but it shines an important light on how we look at health. For starters, 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. Even more importantly, 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.
So it may be time to rewrite your New Year's resolution: you're not dropping weight, you're dropping fat. (While you're at it nutritionists want you to stop saying these words right now.)