Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Even the Thin Can Be Fat

May 4, 2012 by  
Filed under HAES, Nutrition

A Marsha Hudnall blast from the past, re-posted from 2010: When I read the story in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Scales Can Lie: Hidden Fat,” it took me back to my college days and a friend I remember wondering about.  As I was struggling with my own self-perceived fatness, I remember wondering how my friend could be so thin yet not look it, at least in the way thin is usually thought to look.  She seemed the perfect picture of “ideal”  until you noticed her muscle tone.  There wasn’t any.  I still would have preferred having her body to mine at that time, though, being as ensconced in a poor body image as I was.

Fast forward 30 years and I see the above article talking about “normal weight obesity.”  It’s a situation where someone of “normal body size” (their words, not mine) has a higher ratio of fat to muscle than thought to be healthy.  In this case, they were talking about the impact of unhealthy levels of body fat on heart health.  Seems as many as 30 million Americans may fall into the “normal-weight-obesity” category.  The article goes on to discuss the need for validation of the Mayo Clinic study that suggests this as well as the problems with assessing body fat.

What I took out of the article, however, is that the research underscores the basic message of the health at every size (HAES) movement.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s our health, stupid.  Not that I encourage anyone to worry, but if we are going to worry whether we’re fat or not, our focus lies better on its impact on our health rather than on our size.  And we can benefit greatly from realizing fat doesn’t always have a negative impact on health.

I have no idea what was going on with my friend, whether she had a high percentage of  body fat or not.  But my 20-something-year-old mind was thinking fat, and not the health impact of it, but what it looked like.  Along those same lines, one prominent voice in the HAES movement raised worthwhile speculation about what may be behind the concerns of some of the scientists quoted in the WSJ article.  “Perhaps it isn’t really weight per se, or high BMI’s, that has lots of scientists concerned — it is the aesthetic properties of fat itself,” says Bill Fabrey of the Council on Size & Weight Discrimination.  As evidence he points out the final quote in the article. “If you’re at a sloppy normal weight, that’s not going to be good for you.”

Sounds like for some the “sloppiness factor” is at issue at least as much as health.  No real surprise there.  I’ve moved on since my 20s, thank goodness, for my own sake as well as that of the women I work with.

Have you moved on? If so, you may want to consider taking part in the HAES movement.  You can join the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) before February 28 and get special “partial-year” discounted rates.  It really is an organization worth supporting and being a part of.  And remember, there’s strength in numbers.  When we’re talking about movements, that is…not body size.


21 Responses to “Even the Thin Can Be Fat”
  1. Lance says:

    I’m a big believer in the importance of resistance training as part of a balanced workout program. For men and women. Specifically, to build muscle. And not to the point of being “built”, but really for giving our bodies a great start at controlling the fat within our bodies. When I was in college, I would describe myself as skinny-fat. Today, I weigh more, but am in much better shape – and that’s because of a combination of eating healthy, moving (i.e. cardio), and lifting some heavy things (i.e. weight training…or hauling my kids up and down the stairs!!).

    Great article to read on the importance of what “healthy” really is.

  2. Hi, Lance! When I started resistance training, the big benefit I noticed was being able to lift my suitcase into the overhead rack on the airplane. I remember that being such an aha.

  3. Emily says:

    It sounds like there’s more realization that BMI isn’t everything. It can’t get at the variations of fat and muscle in your body. That egg-like Bod Pod is supposed to give a true reading of body composition. I know they used in on the Biggest Loser, and (at least the one here in MN) is open to the public for your own reading. Might be worth it to get a reading for your next physical. I know I get dirty looks about BMI but I’ve never been in my range, I’m a former athlete who trained to bulk up. HAES seems like it might respond to more scientific approaches instead of vast generalizations. Thanks for sharing this!

    • lissa10279 says:

      Emily I am with you. Even at my thinnest (which was “too thin” for me) I had a BMI of 24.5. I think BMI just doesn’t work for everyone. Now I have gained some weight and I fall into the “overweight” category, but I doubt anyone would really call me overweight, ya know?

    • Emily,

      I’m actually just starting to take a second look at body composition assessment tools for a number of reasons but can’t make any intelligent comments re their validity at this point. I’m a little conflicted about the need for them, however. When we’re living a healthy lifestyle, our bodies respond and take us to a healthy place, unless there’s something getting in the way that a body composition assessment tool would be of little help in discovering. Further, there’s danger in tools like this to keep us focused on the numbers instead of on how we feel. All that said, however, I will reserve final judgment until I do more research. Perhaps at some point after I do that research, I’ll share what my final opinion is, if it’s worth the blog space. 🙂

      • Gina says:

        I think bodyfat percentage is a far better indicator of health than “scale weight” but it’s so difficult to measure. I read on another forum about a woman who had her bodyfat percentage tested in three different ways on the same day – DEXA scan, immersion and calipers – and the results were wildly different.

        Caliper testing can be useful if you are losing bodyfat, just to compare the numbers, but you can’t rely on them to give you your absolute bodyfat percentage, because we all store fat in different places.

        Apparently the only really reliable way to measure body composition is dissection – and not too many people want to volunteer for that!

  4. CandiceBP says:

    For me, the idea of health is being capable. I know I need to get more exercise when I can’t do things I should ordinarily be able to do – climb stairs without being winded or, like you said, lift a suitcase up onto a rack. We live such sedentary lives, many of us, that when we ask our bodies to do this things, we can be surprised at how it’s a bit of a struggle. I feel good about myself when I can physically accomplish the things I want to, not when I’m in a certain size pant or hit a certain number on the scale (although those are hard things to let go of).

    • Diana Morgan says:

      I love this article. For me, health has always been most important. When I am exercising and eating right for my body, (which isn’t necessarily right for anyone else) I feel good physically and I feel good about myself. My whole attitude about life and what I am capable of is affected by the quality of my physical and emotional health. I have always been “plus size” and have always struggled with there being something wrong with me. The only time I was ever “thin” was when I was really sick and lost a lot of weight from having pneumonia. And even then I didn’t feel OK about my body size or about me. The only thing that has ever motivated me to eat well and exercise has been the reward of feeling good!

    • You’re so right, Candice. Those things are hard to let go of. But so worth it to do so.

  5. cggirl says:

    This is all important stuff. I agree that if we ARE measuring our bodies, body composition and changes in it are more important than weight.

    My trainer recently checked my body fat percentage and said that she herself never looks at weight, only body composition and physical abilities. And btw, apparently my body fat is not that high even tho I am “overweight”. Also, while I have never been slim in my adult life, I am stronger than people expect me to be, can lift heavy things and climb many flights of stairs and dance all night. And I love that about myself!

    What is a shame is that this article- at leat by the quotes here- is all about scaring thin people that they too are too fat. Where is the other side of it? The one we are discussing here – that you can weigh more than people think you “should” but still be fit and healthy?

    Also, “sloppy”? That’s just awful. Perfect example of how the underlying thing is that we think fatness is gross and health is just an excuse. So now it’s an excuse to be grossed out by thinner people too. Such a shame how someting that should help us all focus less
    on weight is only used to shame more and more people about not looking like airbrushed photos of celebs.

    • The author does mention that BMI may not be the most reliable indicator of health for the “overweight” category. But the topic overall gets pretty short shrift.

      The question I keep asking is how was body fat was measured in the study. Guess I need to read the original research. Can we reliably measure intra-abdominal fat, which is the fat that carries health risks? Can they measure intra-abdominal fat at health clubs and the like? Maybe. I don’t know. My gut (no pun intended) tells me no but I may be wrong. Anyone out there know?

  6. deb roby says:

    When I was young, I was I a skinny fat person. I weighed at the bottom of the healthy range for my size – 98#. But I had no muscle tone and have always had a higher than desirable level of body fat.

    Back then, we didn’t talk about BMI, fat, obesity, skinny fat, etc. Heck, they were just starting to talk about aerobic exercise for cardiovascular heatlh. HEALTH. Not weight control.

    Then everything went wacky- with super fad diets, and hours of aerobic exercise and jogging, and disco roller skating… and.. and

    the nation now averages 20-30# pounds than they did back in 1970- yet all the newspapers and magazines and tv shows talk about healthy fat, exercise, diet. The greater the discussion, the greater the problem becomes.

    • So true, deb. All the talk — and all the bad advice accompanying it — is turning us into a nation of weight worriers who have little understanding of what’s really at issue. To say nothing of all the potentially productive time we spend focused on it.

  7. julie says:

    I love strength training, having muscles. It’s awesome that I can do things, even strenuous things, like gardening all day long, moving furniture, whatever, and I don’t wear out, hurt myself. As far as BMI, it really does work perfectly for me. At BMI = 25, I’m flabby, maybe 10% overweight. Apparently, I’m the only one it’s dead on for.

    I wouldn’t give up my muscles for anything.

  8. Carmel says:

    Yes, I actually tend to slightly INCREASE my weight the fitter I get. The fittest I’ve ever been I was still firmly in the ‘overweight’ category, but metabolically I was far from being ‘overfat’. Personally, I curse the creators of the BMI! So much grief over numbers that don’t even begin to tell the full story.

  9. FatNSassy says:

    The more people who are labeled fat, the more customers for the diet industry. The obesity crisis is about transferring money from the middle class to the corporations! They have tricked the American public into believing their entire self worth depends on it!

  10. Licorice says:

    I heard about “normal weight obesity” the other day on the news, and now on the internet I keep on hearing about it. The problem is, I think that I fit into this category. I am 5’4″ and 112.8 lbs. I’ve never had my body fat checked by a doctor or anything, but boy do I look fat in the mirror. So flabby. I’ve lost 60 lbs. over the past 7 months through exercise and eating less (yes, resistance training too), but nothing seems to help this fat and flab. I think that next time I go to the doctor I am going to ask about having my body fat measured…

  11. The question as far as your health goes, Licorice, is whether the fat you see is problematic. That’s subcutaneous fat and generally it’s not the fat that causes any kind of health problems. It’s the fat we don’t see — nestled around our abdominal organs — that is linked to problems like diabetes. And I’m not sure that kind of fat can be reliably measured outside of a research lab. And definitely don’t think most doctors would have the tools to do it if it can be reliably measured.

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