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Is it Better to Be Fat and Fit Than Skinny and Unfit?

fat, obesity, overweight, weight management, weight loss, skinny, fit, fitness, metabolicIs a person’s weight really a reliable indicator of overall health?

Some medical research is showing that it isn’t. Last week a report in The Archives of Internal Medicine compared weight and cardiovascular risk factors among a representative sample of more than 5,400 adults. Half of the overweight people and one-third of obese people in the study were “metabolically healthy.” That means that many overweight and obese adults may have healthy levels of “good” cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose.

At the same time, about one out of four slim people in the study actually had at least two cardiovascular risk factors typically associated with obesity.

Being overweight or obese is definitely linked with numerous health problems. Nonetheless, researchers found the proportion of overweight and obese people who are metabolically healthy surprising.

Several studies have shown that fitness, as determined by how a person performs on a treadmill, is a far better indicator of health than body mass index. Some research has indicated that people who are fat but can still keep up on treadmill tests have much lower heart risk than people who are slim and unfit.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Your body is designed to operate best when it’s at an ideal weight, which  varies slightly from person to person. However, carrying around extra pounds will inevitably increase your risk of developing just about every chronic degenerative disease, so the idea that you can be overweight, or even obese, and still be in optimal health, can easily lead you down the wrong path. 

That said, obesity itself is not the underlying cause of any health problem, it is merely a symptom. The underlying cause is usually an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, which leads to increased insulin and leptin levels. Add to that the strain of unaddressed emotional challenges and you may soon find yourself at an excessive, unhealthy weight, and health challenges can easily develop from there. 

These three factors are present in the majority of people’s lives, which explains why two-thirds of the American population is already overweight. If the trends of the past three decades continue, it’s possible that every American adult could be overweight by 2048!

Although surveys have found that Americans attitudes have shifted drastically toward greater acceptance of heavier body types, which is good, I believe it’s a serious mistake to embrace it as a “new healthy norm.” To do so will only add to this health crisis as excess weight goes hand in hand with so many chronic and debilitating diseases that could easily be avoided.

Is it Possible to Be Healthy and Overweight?

Yes, while  it’s certainly possible to be thin and unhealthy,  there are far more unhealthy overweight people than thin people..

The central issue is insulin and leptin resistance, which is far more common in overweight individuals than thin .  If you are overweight I would be careful about using this study for reassurance unless you recently measured your insulin, leptin and cholesterol levels, and they suggested you were “metabolically fit.” 

I think the health risks of obesity are fairly well-known by now -- obese adults tend to have higher rates of high blood pressure, abnormal lipids, cancer and diabetes. And, making matters worse, the vast majority of people are treated with costly medications that don’t address the real problems but rather cause further deterioration of health.

The side effects alone from all of these medications can overwhelm your system, but even after adjusting for "traditional" risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, obese adults also face increased risks of:

  • Silent vascular disease (blood vessel disease that causes no symptoms)
  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Thicker heart walls

Not All Excess Body Fat is Harmful to Your Health

Despite all the health risks associated with being overweight, not all types of body fat represent an inherent health problem.

Researchers have known for some time that fat that collects in your abdomen -- known as visceral fat, which gathers around your internal organs -- can raise your risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.

However, people with pear-shaped bodies are less prone to these disorders. It seems that their fat may be actively protecting them from metabolic disease.

Recent research has discovered that subcutaneous fat – found just under your skin, which causes dimpling and cellulite -- is intrinsically different from visceral fat in several ways. It actually produces substances that act systemically to improve glucose metabolism, and is able to communicate with various organs to elicit beneficial effects.

Not only is the gene expression inherently different between the two types of fat, but the fats also vary their genetic expressions based on where in the body they’re placed. For example, when the researchers added more subcutaneous fat subcutaneously, there was no major difference in health outcome. But when they placed subcutaneous fat in with visceral fat, in the abdominal cavity, surprising health benefits were seen, such as weight loss and improved metabolic function.

These findings highlight the importance of looking at your body as a WHOLE and not just a collection of separate parts. In order to be optimally healthy, you can’t simply focus on one aspect, such as striving to fit into a size 6. You may be healthy at that size, you might not – depending on how you got there, and how you stay there; i.e. are you exercising, eating healthy, and managing your emotional and mental stress levels, or are you just starving yourself and running on pure adrenaline?

What’s Causing the Obesity Epidemic?

There are a number of theories for why so many people are overweight, but when you start to have entire populations tipping the scales toward obesity, it does suggest that something is fundamentally wrong.

Among the theories that are, in my opinion, most plausible are the following:

1. The modern-day diet: It encourages eating big portions of high-fructose corn syrup, refined grains, processed foods and artificial sweeteners, a perfect recipe for weight gain.

2. Sedentary lifestyles: Generations ago people had no choice but to exercise; they did it for their very livelihoods or at least to get from one place to another. Today, many people sit behind a desk for most of the day, then get in their cars to drive home. Leisure time involves more sitting, either in front of the TV, computer or video game system.

3. Stress and negative emotions: It is very easy to get caught up in using food as a security blanket, a distraction from boredom, or a way to cope with stress -- and once you get used to using food to feel better, it’s hard to break the routine.

4. Exposure to environmental pollutants: Exposure to low levels of pesticides, dyes, flavorings, perfumes, plastics, resins, and solvents may make you put on weight.

5. The make-up of bacteria in your gut: This is related to your diet, but if you eat a lot of sugar and grains, it can negatively influence the bacteria in your gut and contribute to obesity.

6. Lack of sleep: This disrupts vital hormones and proteins in your body, which may also increase your risk of obesity.

I don’t believe that “bad” genes play a major role. Not only has science busted this myth, showing that good nutrition during childhood can cancel out genetic predispositions to obesity, but I’m also a firm proponent of epigenetic medicine and believe our emotions and thoughts have enormous influence over the expression of our genetic code.

Exercise: THE Most Important Factor for Optimal Health and Longevity

Study after study confirms that physical exercise is absolutely the key for disease reduction, optimal mental, emotional and physical health, and longevity. So, it’s not surprising to see that this latest study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, also found that fitness is a far better indicator of overall health and longevity than body mass index (BMI).  

In conclusion the study reads: 

In this study population, fitness was a significant mortality predictor in older adults, independent of overall or abdominal adiposity. Clinicians should consider the importance of preserving functional capacity by recommending regular physical activity for older individuals, normal-weight and overweight alike.

One of the main benefits of exercise is that it normalizes your insulin and leptin levels, with the secondary benefits of weight loss and normalization of blood sugars. These factors in turn cascade outward, creating a ripple effect of positive health benefits.

For more information about getting started, staying motivated, and reaping maximum results, please review the Exercise Guidelines included in my nutritional plan.

Achieving Your Optimal Weight

Making up your mind to lose weight is half the battle. From there, it’s just a matter of changing your lifestyle in the following ways:

1. Tailor your diet to your nutritional type. These are the foods that are right for your biochemistry, and these are the foods that will push your body toward its ideal weight. (By the way, these foods may be high in fat, high in carbs, heavy on protein or heavy on veggies, it all depends on YOU).

2. View exercise as a drug. When you’re trying to lose weight, a casual walk here and there is not going to cut it. Many studies find that exercising for one hour, five days a week is actually needed, and I tend to agree with that.  There is also strong compelling evidence that strength training and high-intensity anaerobic interval training may be especially effective for weight loss.

3. Let go of your emotional blocks. Tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are your friend and ally when it comes to losing weight. For some, emotional eating is more complex, and an experienced EFT practitioner may be able to help unravel some of your deeper emotional issues.

If you’re already at a healthy weight, and want to stay that way, cutting out 100 calories per day, either by diet or exercise, is enough to prevent weight gain in most people.