Overweight and Healthy?

Don't judge a book by its cover has long been the counsel of school teachers, but a growing body of evidence suggests the expression may apply to people, too. Overweight adults, it turns out can be healthy.

One example is research published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) which followed 2,600 adults (60 and over) for 12 years to observe the link between weight, fitness, and mortality. In one study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), fitness level, regardless of body mass index (BMI), was the strongest predictor of mortality risk. Those who fell below determined fitness levels—overweight or not—were at highest risk.

Physical activity is essential regardless of a person's size, says Anne VanBeber, PhD, RD and chairperson of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth, Texas. "The thinking needs to change from: 'I need to lose weight' to 'I need to get fit'." VanBeber believes that the number on a scale only tells part of the story. "Weight is just one indicator of well-being. It should not be considered a snapshot of a person's health."

Almost every home has a body weight scale, but that won't tell you if your weight is fat or muscle. "People often get discouraged when they start to exercise and don't see much movement on the scale," VanBeber explains. "If you increase your muscle mass, your metabolism will increase, and you'll be more fit. But remember, muscle weighs more than fat."

To measure your progress, measure your body's composition. If you lose 10 pounds but gain 20 pounds of muscle, you may not like the number on the scale, but you'll look a lot better.

Don't Just Step on a Scale

There are several ways to calculate body composition. Here, the most common and accessible.

  1. For most people, body mass index or B.M.I is an easy way to assess body composition. It's a measure of weight relative to height. Normal B.M.I range is 18.5 to 24. A rating of over 25 is considered overweight. Thirty or higher is obese. To calculate your number instantly, go to the American Council on Exercise, a non-profit organization that promotes active lifestyles, and use the BMI Calculator.
  2. Long considered the gold standard, underwater or hydrostatic weighing is a method of body composition analysis done while a person is submerged in a tank of water. VanBeber herself has done this method and says it's not accessible to the average person. "It's done at research institutes and wellness centers," the professor explains. "It's tricky because the measurement, which is based on Archimedes' principle of displacement (lean tissue is more dense than water; fat tissue is less dense) can't be taken until most of air is exhaled from your body."
  3. The skin-fold method is routinely done at gyms and health centers, according to VanBeber who emphasizes the importance of having it done by a properly trained tester. Readings are taken using a tool called a skin-fold caliper (which sort of resembles a tong) at various skinfold sites on the body. For men: chest, thigh and abdomen; for women: triceps, thigh and the area between the hip and bottom of the rib.
  4. Bioeletrical Impedance Analysis (also known as B.I.A) is a method that tests the conductivity of the body. In the painless procedure, magnetic strips are placed on the feet or hands and a small device is waved over the body. Electricity travels through water faster than fat. "It's a portable device that you sometimes see at health fairs, but unless you haven't eaten for at least two hours, I wouldn't do it in this setting," says the expert. Being slightly dehydrated can also give an inaccurate reading. "Nothing is fool proof."

Simple Steps to Improve your Health

You'll live longer if you're more fit even if you are overweight or obese. Research shows men who exercise have a reduced risk of dying from both cardiovascular disease and cancer, too. Here, VanBeber offers her tips to help you get moving:

Make small changes. "Improving a poor diet and starting an exercise routine can be overwhelming," says VanBeber. "Start small and move! Even a 300- pound person can incorporate walking into their life." The Journal of Physical Therapy Association has done countless walking studies. According to the organization, the average American takes less than 5,000 steps a day. For weight-loss and health, 10,000 steps a day are recommended. "Purchase a pedometer. They are inexpensive and will help you keep track of the ground you've covered. Remember, you don't have to do it all at one time. Try taking 10-minute walks three or four times per day."

Practice portion control. "People eat way too much. Our portion size is way out of whack in this country," VanBeber says. "If you eat out a lot, ask the waiter to bring a take-home box with the food when he serves it. Box up half of the meal before you take the first bite. That way you won't be tempted to over eat and can have it the next day."

Serve up the right size. VanBeber describes what a healthy meal looks like: "Take a paper plate and draw a line down the middle. One half should be veggies (some fruit is okay); on the other half, a quarter can be starch (but try for whole grains) and the last quarter should be protein such as lean chicken/turkey, beef, soy, or legumes." And one other portion-control idea: "Use a salad plate for meals, instead of a regular-sized dinner plate. Your plate will look full, but you'll be eating much less."

Bite into a rainbow. Color is huge, according to the Texas-based professor. "The foods with color: tomatoes, red grapes, spinach, sweet potatoes, for example, are loaded with phytochemicals and antioxidants. They help stop cancer and the oxidation that causes heart disease. Get as many into your diet as you can."

Got herbs? Dried or fresh herbs/spices are a great way to flavor food. Avoid salt as much as possible. It retains water. "Americans consume over 5000 mg. of sodium per day when between 1000 and 3000 mg daily is all that's needed for proper body functioning," says VanBeber who lives in Texas where salsa is served often as a side dish. "It's great with eggs and low in fat. Try it!"

Finally, if you lower your calories and don't incorporate exercise, the body responds by slowing down to compensate. "The idea is to keep your metabolism working," VanBeber concludes.


American Council on Exercise

Anne VanBeber, Ph.D, R.D. chairperson of nutrition sciences at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth

Two studies published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (JAMA)
Cardiovascular Fitness as a Predictor of Morality in Men (March 26, 2001)
The Obese Without Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering and the Normal Weight With Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Clustering (Aug. 2008)