How Fat is too Fat?

Despite our obsession with thinness, fat-free foods and exercise equipment, researchers tell us that as a group, Canadians are fatter than ever. According to the Canadian National Center for Health Statistics, one-third of adults are overweight, up from 25 percent just 15 years ago.

On average, adults in the Canada weigh about eight pounds more than they did 10 years ago, and obesity rates are rising quickly in children as well.

Why are obesity rates rising?

The short answer to this question is too much food and too little exercise. The long answer contains more factors, such as the availability of cheap, fast food that is high in fat, busy lifestyles that squeeze out time for home-cooked meals, and automation that has taken physical exertion out of our daily lives. Rates of obesity are highest among lower socioeconomic groups, perhaps because access to programs that offer physical activity is limited for these groups.

When is obesity a health problem?

No one knows exactly what level of fatness is unhealthy for a given individual. Research has shown that excess fatness is associated with many health problems for both men and women, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis, gallstones and low-back problems. The greater the excess weight, the greater the risk. Several studies have suggested that the typical middle-aged weight gain of 20 to 30 pounds may be hazardous to one's health.

Is obesity the real culprit?

A question that remains unanswered is whether obesity is the real cause of the health risks listed above, or simply a marker for other lifestyle factors that represent the real risk, such as a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits. Obesity probably interacts with heredity and lifestyle to affect factors like blood cholesterol levels that are considered to be health risks. Many experts have observed that overweight people with risk factors, such as poor blood sugar control, improve their health when they begin exercising and eating better, even when no weight loss occurs. They can decrease blood pressure and cholesterol, and improve blood sugar control, thus decreasing their risk of heart disease without losing a pound. This is good news for many people who find it extremely difficult to lose weight.

How do I know how much I should weigh?

Americans have a hard time answering this question. Over half of normal weight women are dieting because they think they are too fat, and truly overweight people experience anxiety, frustration and a sense of personal failure by trying to reach impossible weight-loss goals.

Each person must come to terms with a body weight and shape that is realistic, depending upon that person's heredity and behavior. There is no perfect guide that can dictate a perfect body weight. The standard height-weight charts provide a starting point, but many other variables must be considered as well. These include:

Body composition. More important than weight is body composition -- how much of your weight is fat. Very muscular people may find themselves "too heavy" according to the height-weight charts, when in reality they are very healthy. A body composition estimate can give you a rough idea of whether extra weight is fat.

Location of fat stores. If you carry extra fat on the upper body, you are at greater risk for high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease than people whose extra fat resides in their hips and thighs. Lower body obesity is a lesser health risk; however, people with "pear shapes" are still at higher risk for obesity-related disorders than people who are not overweight.

Medical and family story. Weight loss, or at least lifestyle improvement, is most important for people who have obesity-related health problems, or a family history of these disorders. Developing good eating habits and exercising regularly is especially beneficial for men and women in this category.

Age. People over 70 years old who are slightly overweight but apparently healthy with no obesity-related disorders should probably not try to lose weight. In fact, many nutritionists recommend and extra 10 or 15 pounds for people over 70 to help them resist wasting should they become ill. And if the excess weight is not associated with health problems, losing weight may offer no health benefits.

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