Are You Overfat? The New Weight Problem to Worry About

As many as 76 percent of the world's population may be "overfat" and at risk for serious health problems as a result. Are you one of them?

Are You Overfat? The New Weight Problem to Worry AboutiStock/adrian825

“Overfat” is the new overweight.

Current health measures such as body mass index (BMI) and weight don’t accurately reflect how much excess harmful fat we are storing in our bodies, explains Phil Maffetone, CEO of MAFF Fitness Pty Ltd, a health and wellness program in New South Wales, Australia. Overfat is a better way to refer to America’s ever-expanding waistlines and the health risks associated with them. “Overfat is defined as an excess amount of body fat that impairs health,” says Maffetone, who just published an article on the new concept in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. “It’s not ‘Gee, I don’t look good in the mirror,’ or ‘I don’t fit in my clothes anymore,’ it’s about health.”

As many as 5.5 billion people worldwide may fall into this emergent category. That means that up to 76 percent of the world’s population is overfat and at-risk, Maffetone says. The overfat category also includes normal-weight people who have risk factors for heart disease and diabetes including abdominal obesity.

The reasoning is pretty straightforward: You may tip the scale at your current weight, but that number reflects much more than just fat—muscles, water weight, and bones are part of our body composition. Same with BMI, which is the height-to-weight ratio. “Height and weight don’t reflect body fat,” Maffetone says.

The new term comes at a time when doctors are questioning the value of BMI as a comprehensive health measure. “While the use of BMI is useful clinically, many people are misclassified,” says Scott Kahan, MD, MPH, the director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington, D.C. “There’s always a lot of attention on those who are very fit and muscular, but misclassified by BMI as being overweight, and this is actually a much smaller population than those who have a normal BMI but low levels of bone and muscle and higher levels of body fat.”

These individuals tend to have at least as many health issues as those who are traditionally overweight. “These folks are often missed by their doctors and others, so they don’t get the treatment or attention needed to change their lifestyle and address these problems,” Dr. Kahan says.

Does this mean you can kick your scale to the curb?

Maybe, Maffetone says. “Hopefully this is the first big step to get us out of dark ages of being overweight.”

There is no standard cut-off or accepted way to measure ‘over fatness’ … yet. Until there is, place a tape measure around your abdomen, just across the belly button, Maffetone suggests. “I have a cut-off of 33 inches for women and 38 inches for men, so you want to fall below that to be normal fat,” he says. Measuring waistline once a month is usually sufficient to capture any changes in fat, Maffetone says.

Other weight experts see value in the new term. “The overfat concept resonates,” says Rachel Lustgarten, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian at the Comprehensive Weight Control Center of Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian in New York City. “Internal or visceral fat in the abdomen is dangerous fat and can’t be measured by pinching, which is why measuring waist circumference, using a body composition calendar or having body composition measured by your doctor or a fitness professional can provide a better idea of where you stand,” she says.

Some scales can measure lean body mass too. “These are all good tools for a ball park measurement that will tell you if you should reach out to your doctor or a dietitian to discuss lifestyle changes or other ways of losing fat,” Lustgarten adds.

Losing fat starts with eating clean. “Eat real food, not junk,” Maffetone says. “This includes fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, fish, nuts and seeds.” Avoiding refined or processed carbs will also help the effort, he adds. These nutritious foods are even healthier than you thought.

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Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.