Modern society is obsessed with weight. And yet many people don’t even fully understand what it means to be overweight, let alone obese or even underweight. Every day we are bombarded with conflicting messages about weight.
The next time you pass by a magazine rack at a bookstore look at the different body types you see on magazine covers. Muscle building magazines will feature huge-muscled bodybuilders in elaborate poses, cooking magazines often have people with larger bodies and big smiles in front of delicious meals, and fashion magazines tend to have incredibly skinny women in tight-fitting clothing.
Those are just a few examples of what you see every day, and they don’t take into account what you see on television or online or even the differences in body types around your office. It’s no wonder there are so many people with different opinions on what represents a healthy body. To understand the truth of what a healthy body actually is, you may need a quick lesson on how weight has been viewed throughout history.
The very concept of being overweight, let alone obese, is actually relatively new. Thousands of years ago our hunter-gatherer ancestors struggled to consume enough calories simply to avoid starvation. And they ate a diet vastly different than what we know today. Overindulging on unhealthy junk food simply didn’t happen because that food didn’t even exist.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, being overweight or obese was often viewed as a sign of wealth because the economic elite were able to afford rich foods and had staff to handle manual labour. The health detriments were not fully known, so many people wanted to be overweight because of the association with wealth. Painful conditions such as gout were known to be associated with rich foods and alcohol but were not understood.
As time passed, lifestyles slowly changed and unhealthy foods became more accessible; as a result, being overweight or obese has become much more common, to the point that it has reached epidemic proportions around the world. As the epidemic spreads and we see more and more people with larger waistlines, the accepted definition of what constitutes healthy body weight has become blurred.
The term “obese” means that a person has gained enough weight that it may have an adverse effect on his or her health. That definition hasn’t changed; it’s our perception that has. You don’t need to go all the way back to our lean hunter-gatherer ancestors to see the change. Just 50 years ago an obese person was easy to spot because there were so few of them. Now when an overweight person compares himself to others, he doesn’t see anything different than what he sees when he looks in a mirror. That is a problem. Some waistlines you see are so large, they can make overweight seem healthy and healthy seem undernourished.
If we can’t compare ourselves to others in order to judge weight, we must find another way. For many years the standard way of measuring being overweight or obese was the Body Mass Index, or BMI. Your BMI is a calculation based on height and weight. While it is good for tracking weights over large populations, it falls short for individuals interested in their own health. This is because the BMI does not take into account factors such as how much lean muscle mass a person has. If you lift weights intensively, there is a good chance a BMI reading would tell you that you are overweight or obese, because muscle is so much heavier than is fat.
A much more accurate way to measure being overweight or obese is the waist-to-hip ratio, which compares the size of your waist to the circumference of your hips. Much like the older BMI method, you simply do a quick calculation and then compare your results to a chart, which will give you a good idea of your health. Unlike the BMI, the results of the waist-to-hip ratio do take into account lean body mass.
Yet another way to calculate obesity is the waist-to-height ratio. This newest method is becoming more widespread because studies are showing it may be an even more accurate method. Waist-to-hip and waist-to-height ratio calculators can both be found online, and both are far more accurate than is simply comparing yourself to others or weighing yourself on a bathroom scale.
Being overweight and being obese essentially cause the same health problems, although obesity can cause more severe problems because it is a more severe condition. The more overweight a person is, the more likely he or she is to experience health problems. This is an unavoidable fact. The more a person weighs, the higher his or her risk becomes for having a heart attack or stroke and for developing high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, high triglycerides, multiple types of cancer and other health issues.
Keeping weight off isn’t just good for the body; it’s good for the mind as well. When you perform cardiovascular exercises in order to lose weight, you are also increasing blood circulation including your brain. More blood flow to the brain means more oxygen and higher-functioning cognition. Exercise also stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals that can boost your mood. A post-workout increase in the levels of a particular hormone responsible for brain cell growth has also been observed. In fact, scientists have seen anatomical differences in the amount of gray and white matter between physically fit and less-fit people. There is simply no denying that physical exercise can impact mental function, which is yet another reason to get in shape and shed those excess pounds.
Understanding what it means to be obese and what the repercussions are is only the beginning. Once you have educated yourself and discovered whether you are at a healthy weight, the next step is to take action. The two best ways to avoid gaining excess weight are to eat a healthy diet and to live an active lifestyle.
An unhealthy diet of fast-food meals combined with a sedentary lifestyle is a sure way to gain weight. But a diet based largely on fresh fruits and vegetables and lean sources of protein, combined with a lifestyle that includes time for regular physical activity, will greatly reduce the chances of becoming overweight. There are many resources available for learning how to live a healthy lifestyle. If you are new to the world of health and nutrition, ask your doctor to recommend a nutritionist or simply visit your local gym, where you will find many like-minded people who will be more than willing to point you in the right direction.
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