Are you Certain You're at a Healthy Weight?

Obesity epidemic is worse than thought but better assessments mean addressing it sooner

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The news doesn't sound good: the obesity epidemic appears more widespread than previously believed. But patients and doctors armed with better knowledge can better address their health.

That knowledge comes in the form of more precise measurements to determine who is really obese and not just overweight.

A new study reveals that the currently primarily method of using body mass index alone is insufficient, but a type of body scan that looks at body fat, muscle mass and bone density can help doctors better determine who is obese and therefore who needs help in addressing this significant health issue.

"Talk to your doctor openly about your weight concerns."

Co-authors Eric Braverman, MD, of the New York University School of Medicine, and Nirav Shah, MD, of the Department of Neurosurgery at Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York, have found that a better method exists for more accurately measuring whether someone is obese.

The method is called a Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA) scan, which simultaneously measure body fat, muscle mass and bone density.

Body mass index, by contrast, is a ratio of a person's overweight weight to their height, which cannot distinguish between body fat and muscle mass, which is heavier than fat.

The estimate is valuable for healthcare professionals for a quick sense of a person's general health, but it's not always precise enough to distinguish between a person who is overweight and a person who is obese.

It also cannot easily take into account people who may have a higher percentage of muscle mass - which makes them weigh more - and still provide information on whether that person does or does not have a healthy percentage of body fat.

"The BMI is an insensitive measure of obesity, prone to under-diagnosis while direct fat measurements are superior because they show distribution of body fat," Braverman said.

Braverman and Shah's calculations reveal that as many as 39 percent of Americans may actually be overweight, using DXA measurements, instead of overweight, as their BMI numbers would classify them.

"These estimates are fundamental to U.S. policy addressing the epidemic of obesity and are central to designing interventions aimed at curbing its growth, yet the [current policies] may be flawed because they are based on the BMI," the authors write.

If healthcare providers do not have access to using DXA measurements, they may also get a better picture of a person's health in terms of weight by measuring the person's levels of leptin.

Leptin is a hormone protein that the study found is linked to the amount of body fat a person has. Their article provides a table that can be used with BMI and leptin levels to classify whether a person is obese.

Obesity has been increasing over the past decade in the U.S. and has been linked to a number of serious health conditions, from cardiovascular problems and heart disease to cancer to diabetes.

But obesity is also a condition which, when addressed, can significantly impact a person's quality of life. A person who decides today to take the necessary steps to lose weight has a higher likelihood of living longer and will experience higher energy levels.

Increased sex drive is associated with a healthier body weight, and losing weight can even help your pocketbook when you're spending money on things you love to do instead of healthcare expenses.

Making the switch to healthier, fresher food also ensures you are getting the nutrients you need to live longer and freer from disease.

The first step in that process is to talk to your doctor to find out what a healthy weight is for you and how you can achieve that weight with your healthcare provider's help.

The study appeared online April 2 in the journal PLoS One. The research was funded by the Life Extension Foundation through PATH Foundation NY.

Several of the authors have financial or other professional relationships with a wide range of pharmaceutical and other medical and healthcare companies. One author has written a book about weight loss.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 4, 2012
Last Updated:
April 4, 2012