The far-reaching health consequences of excess body fat

In a world where convenience, habit and the food environment often trump health and well-being, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has surged, giving rise to a frightening increase in related health conditions. While focus of overweight and obesity is often on physical appearance*, excess body fat significantly affects overall health, giving rise to a cascade of negative effects that can undermine our well-being, health-span and lifespan. From inflammation to a heightened risk of chronic diseases, the web of consequences is intricate.

Note: If you are sensitive about overweight and obesity you may wish to skip this article.

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Obesity

*What someone looks like is entirely their business. All body shapes and sizes are wholly acceptable. However, I want to recognise and support that for some people their appearance affects the way they feel, not because of pressure from others but because they feel better and more confident and comfortable when they are less overweight. And that is OK.

Healthy body mass index and body fat percentage

BMI is often used to determine the level of overweight and obesity, and despite criticism it’s a reasonable tool at population level. People lament that it doesn’t account for muscularity but in general there are few people who are well-muscled enough for it to skew their BMI, it is mostly that people are over-fat.

However, BMI doesn’t look at body composition, i.e. it doesn’t tell us how much fat and how much lean we’re carrying.

The best at-home tool for that is a set of bio-impedence scales, which is what we ask our clients to use. These scales give a reading of body fat and, in my experience and with my background knowledge, generally females are good at roughly 22-30% and males at 12-18%. Various research papers, such as this, generally come in with similar figures, with this one giving body fat% cut offs for each sex, after which point disease risk increased.

While the official jury is still out on what levels of body fat correlate with overweight and obesity I have observed over the past 12 years of practise that males above 20% and females above 30% overall body fat have BMIs that classify them as overweight or obese; in fact it seems that for males about 20-25% correlates with overweight, and 25%+ with obesity. In females it seems that 30-35% correlates with overweight and 35%+ with obesity. But these are only my observations from working with around one thousand people in that time.

From the NHS website – BMI

BMI is a measure of whether you’re a healthy weight for your height. You can use the NHS BMI healthy weight calculator to find out your BMI.

For most adults, if your BMI is:

  • below 18.5 – you’re in the underweight range
  • 18.5 to 24.9 – you’re in the healthy weight range
  • 25 to 29.9 – you’re in the overweight range
  • 30 to 39.9 – you’re in the obese range
  • 40 or above – you’re in the severely obese range

When it comes to abdominal fat, a good set of bio-impedence scales will give a reading for visceral fat – that’s the stuff inside the abdomen, around vital organs and tends to be very metabolically active, i.e. it exudes substances that can affect blood sugar and hormones. About 5% is a good aim.

In terms of being under-fat, when females dip below 20% their hormones can become disrupted and that can affect fertility, immunity and bone health. Males fare better in that regard and can safely dip to around 3-5% without negative consequence, although that is only in hardcore athletes, needs careful dietary management to ensure adequate nutrient intake, and is not a goal for the general public.

Please note: Fat callipers are an inaccurate way of calculating body fat.

The inflammation connection

One of the most serious aspects of the overweight-obesity spectrum is its intricate relationship with inflammation. Adipose tissue, or body fat, isn’t just an inert storage unit; it’s an active endocrine organ that produces hormones and chemicals, many of which contribute to inflammation. Yes, body fat can be considered as an active body organ. As fat accumulates beyond healthy levels, this excess tissue secretes a range of pro-inflammatory substances, disrupting the body’s delicate balance.

Inflammation, typically a defence mechanism against infections and injuries, can become a double-edged sword in the context of chronic excess body fat. Persistent low-grade inflammation is associated with insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Moreover, chronic inflammation contributes to the development of atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries due to plaque buildup, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Inflammation also plays a role in joint issues, like osteoarthritis, causing pain and reducing mobility.

Health risks amplified: major diseases driven by overweight and obesity

  1. Type 2 Diabetes: Excess body fat disrupts insulin’s effectiveness, leading to insulin resistance. This can evolve into type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition characterized by high blood sugar levels, which, if left unmanaged, can result in serious complications like nerve damage, kidney disease, and vision problems.
  2. Cardiovascular Diseases: The inflammation and metabolic changes spurred by obesity significantly elevate the risk of heart diseases. Atherosclerosis, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart failure are common consequences of carrying excess weight.
  3. Cancer: Certain cancers, including breast, colorectal, kidney, and pancreatic cancer, have been linked to obesity. The exact mechanisms are complex, but chronic inflammation and hormonal imbalances are thought to play pivotal roles.
  4. Respiratory Issues: Obesity can lead to sleep apnoea and other breathing difficulties. Fat accumulation in the chest and abdomen can constrain lung expansion, making it harder to breathe.
  5. Joint Problems: Excess weight places additional stress on joints, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis. The wear and tear on joints can result in pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.
  6. Mental Health: Overweight and obesity aren’t solely physical issues; they can have psychological ramifications too. Low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety often accompany the weight gain.

Obesity as a disease

Health effects of obesity

The path to positive change: combatting overweight and obesity

Understanding the intricate relationship between body fat, inflammation and health risk is the first step toward addressing the issue. Sustainable lifestyle changes play a crucial role in managing and preventing obesity-related complications. A balanced diet rich in whole foods, regular physical activity and stress reduction techniques can help mitigate inflammation and reduce excess body fat.

In conclusion, the health effects of overweight and obesity extend far beyond aesthetics. The inflammation triggered by excess body fat creates a domino effect that amplifies the risk of various chronic diseases. By embracing healthier habits and raising awareness about the potential consequences, we can work towards a healthier future and reduce the tragedy of obesity-related health issues.

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Thank you for reading this article. Please note that while we share a lot of awesome information and research you should be aware our articles are strictly for informational purposes and do not constitute medical advice intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease.