In U.S. adults alone, more than two thirds of the population is overweight or obese. With higher rates observed in African-American women than Caucasian women and in the South than the North, obesity varies among demographics but remains a public health concern nationwide.
Far less known, although sharing similar concerns, is a condition called normal weight obesity (NWO). Rather than describing a person that simply has an excessive amount of body fat, NWO describes a person who has a high percentage of body fat but also a normal weight, putting them at risk for the same health risks as someone who is obese.
In a 2008 study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, researchers define this “high body fat percentage” as 30% and 20% for women and men, respectively, and “normal body weight” according to a person’s BMI, determined by a person’s height and weight. They found that more than half of U.S. adults with a normal weight also have high body fat percentages.
These findings put into question the generally held belief that maintaining a normal weight will protect you from obesity-related health risks such as metabolic syndrome, which commonly leads to type 2 diabetes. It asks us to change how we think about obesity, because it is possible for someone with a normal weight to have an excessive amount of body fat.
In fact, you may have heard of the term “skinny fat,” which has been popping up around the Internet of late to describe a person who is skinny but lacks muscle tone. According to Mark Hyman, MD of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, with not enough muscle and too much fat, a person with NWO diagnosed with diabetes actually faces double the risk of death than an overweight person diagnosed with the same condition. “You can still be skinny and sick and be metabolically obese – which in the end may be even more dangerous,” he warns.
This is made possible in part by the buildup of visceral fat, which, unlike the subcutaneous fat most of us are familiar with, covers a person’s internal organs and is invisible from the outside but a lot more dangerous than its more obvious counterpart that lies directly under the skin. In this way, a person may appear skinny but develop the same metabolic conditions as a person who is clearly overweight.
Hopefully, findings such as these may motivate us to make the best possible lifestyle choices – such as eating a balanced diet and getting adequate exercise – to maintain and even win back our health in the face of otherwise hidden health concerns.