There’s no doubt our favourite scales are the ones that give us the lowest weight, but even these may be telling us lies about our health.
For many of us the number on the scales changes how we feel about ourselves. Gain a kilo or two and we’re hitting the gym to work it off. Lose weight and we’re on top of the world. Feelings aside, our weight is also a tool used to determine how healthy we are for our height, as well as our risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. With society today declaring thinness as the ‘ideal’, it is no wonder that so many of us believe the scales have the biggest say about our health. But, irrespective of the number on the scales, body weight alone does not tell us how healthy we are on the inside.
Weight ≠ health
Despite concerns about the obesity epidemic, research shows our obsession with weight as the main measure of health may in fact be misguided. According to research published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, despite excess weight, many overweight or obese people have healthy blood glucose levels and blood pressure, as well as high levels of “good” cholesterol. On the other end of the weight scale however, the study found that one in four people with a healthy weight had at least two risk factors for heart disease. When it comes to longevity, overweight people have been found to have a lower risk of dying than people of a healthy weight, which suggests weight alone doesn’t give us the perfect picture of our health.
Why is weight unreliable?
When we talk about whether our weight is healthy or not, we do so in reference to our height. What we get is our body mass index (BMI). While BMI is meant to tell us our degree of body fatness and provide an insight into our health, in reality it has some limitations. BMI does not take into account gender, age or body fat distribution, nor does it distinguish fat mass from lean tissue such as muscle and bone. Fat mass and lean tissue do not weigh the same – fat is lighter than muscle. Therefore it’s possible for muscular people such as athletes to be rated as overweight or obese on the BMI scale, when in actual fact they’re healthy on the inside with larger amounts of desirable muscle mass and lower levels of body fat.
Other measures of health
If we can’t rely on weight to determine our health then, what can we rely on? Lucky for us there are many other health measurements that can be taken and collectively used to determine our overall health. Let’s take a look at them.
Waist circumference: Where you store your fat may be more important than you how much you weigh or your BMI, with research linking abdominal fat to chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. For the best health, it’s recommended that our waist circumference be less than 94cm for men and less than 80cm for women. A larger waist circumference indicates fat deposits on and around the heart, kidneys, liver and pancreas, making them work harder and increasing the risk of chronic disease. Measuring waist circumference is a useful tool for monitoring lifestyle changes because regular exercise can reduce both waist circumference and cardiometabolic risk (concerning both heart and endocrine conditions such as diabetes), without changing BMI. You can measure your waist circumference by placing the tape measure horizontally halfway between your lowest rib and the top of your hipbone. It’s slightly above your belly button! Breathe in and breath out normally, and then take the measure. The tape should be snug, without squeezing the skin.
Body composition: Your ratio of muscle to fat matters when it comes to health! Muscle is metabolically active and the major tissue that responds to insulin, helping to control blood glucose levels. While muscle wastage is generally associated with people over 60, the truth is we start to lose muscle mass in our mid-twenties and it accelerates from the age of 50. Thanks to our sedentary lifestyles and overindulgent eating patterns, many of us are unknowingly experiencing a reduction in muscle mass and an increase in body fat also known as sarcobesity. This is leading to a fat, frail population who has the worst of two worlds – increased weakness due to muscle loss and a need to carry greater weight due to obesity. A loss of muscle also promotes insulin resistance; a condition where the cells of the body do not respond to insulin and greater amounts of insulin are needed to do the same job. High insulin levels in turn promote metabolic syndrome and obesity. It then becomes a cyclic effect with obesity promoting insulin resistance, accelerating fat gain and muscle wastage. But these effects don’t just happen in the overweight or obese, with US research showing low muscle mass to cause insulin resistance in people under 60, irrespective of their weight. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones maintaining your weight, it doesn’t mean your body composition isn’t changing. In other words, weight stability can mask muscle wastage and it’s damaging effects. Determine your body fat levels and muscle mass (as well as bone mineral density) with a DEXA scan. Visit Measure Up for more information.
Fitness level: If you want to live longer, then get active. Boosting your cardiovascular fitness can reduce mortality rate by an impressive 44 percent, independent of weight loss, while US research has found people with the lowest cardiovascular fitness are four times as likely to die than those with the highest cardiovascular fitness. Good muscular strength and flexibility is also important, as it enables us to maintain physical independence as we age, as well as develop and maintain our muscle mass. You can test your cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, and flexibility by completing a number of tests such as a beep test or timed run; sit-ups, squats and push ups; and sit-and-reach respectively. Contact your accredited exercise physiologist for more information.
Blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of the arteries as it’s being pumped around the body by the heart. High blood pressure puts a strain on our blood vessels and over time can damage and weaken our arteries and heart. High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for heart attacks, strokes and heart failure and is the second leading cause of chronic kidney failure. High blood pressure usually does not come with any warning signs, so make sure you visit your local GP to have it checked each year. Normal blood pressure is a reading of 120/80mmHg or less, while high blood pressure is diagnosed at 140/90mmHg.
Blood cholesterol levels: Cholesterol is a waxy substance that circulates in our blood. Some of our cholesterol comes from the food we eat, but most of it is made in the body by the liver. Cholesterol has a number of functions in the body: it’s a component of cell membranes, sex hormones and is essential for the production of vitamin D and bile. However, an excess of cholesterol in the bloodstream causes a build-up of fatty deposits, narrowing arteries and increasing heart disease risk. Cholesterol comes in several different forms including LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the bad type as it deposits cholesterol onto blood vessel walls, where it builds up narrowing and eventually blocking the blood vessel. HDL cholesterol on the other hand, is the good type because it carries cholesterol away from blood vessels back to the liver. Visit your doctor once a year to get your blood cholesterol levels checked.
Blood glucose levels: Blood glucose provides our brain and muscles with the energy needed to perform daily tasks. Too much glucose in the blood however, is not good for health. Normally, the hormone insulin helps cells take up glucose from our blood so that it can be used for energy. However, in some people either enough insulin may not be produced or their bodies can’t use it properly, which cause blood glucose levels to rise. High blood glucose levels over many years can damage blood vessels and organs such as your heart and kidneys. Your blood glucose levels are normal if they are between 3.5-8mmol/L. Visit your doctor each year to have them checked.
About the author
Caitlin Reid is a unique health professional with qualifications as an accredited nutritionist, accredited exercise physiologist and yoga teacher. Caitlin is passionate about all things health and wellness, and keeps up-to-date with the latest health research, which she uses when contributing expert advice to health, fitness, lifestyle and food companies. She is also the nutrition expert for the Women’s Fitness magazine, the dietitian for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and ambassador for Papaya Australia. Follow Caitlin on Instagram @caitlinareid or visit her website.