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Is overfat the health risk no one talks about?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Research highlights health risks of overfat that can affect even normal weight individuals

There is a new health risk that researchers and fitness experts warn comes from being overfat. To be clear, 'overfat' is not the same as being overweight or obese but the ill health effects are the same.


76 percent of population affected

A study released last week in the journal Frontiers of Public Health highlights the problem of 'overfat' that affects 76 percent of the population - and that figure includes athletes.

The problem with being overfat lies in body composition and not BMI or weight.

'Overfat' individuals might have more fat in the midsection, but even if your belly is flat you could still be at risk for chronic diseases that you never thought about.

Examples include type 2 diabetes, cancer and metabolic syndrome that can lead to stroke and heart risks.

ACE Senior Exercise Scientist Sabrena Jo Merril told EmaxHealth via e-mail clinicians should be aware and screen patients for overfat.

Tools for finding out if you are overfat include simple waist circumference measurement or "via skinfold caliper, bioelectrical impedance, or other convenient method, " Merril told us.

She also adds that clinicians should be aware of relative percentages of fat mass versus lean mass in the entire body when evaluating patients.

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"Promoting the use of the term “overfat” in media outlets will help not only physicians, but also the general public become more aware of this term, which will hopefully lead to conversations about the issue during clinician visits."

What about underfat?

Researchers also say 'underfat' is also a health concern. Given the two conditions, that means just 14 percent of the world's population has a normal fat percentage.

"While we think of the condition of underfat as being due to starvation, those worldwide numbers are dropping rapidly. However, an aging population, an increase in chronic disease and a rising number of excessive exercisers or those with anorexia athletica, are adding to the number of non-starving underfat individuals," says Dr. Philip Maffetone, CEO of MAFF Fitness Pty Ltd. who collaborated in the study.

Overfat a global health concern

Maffetone adds being overfat is a global concern because it means higher numbers of people are at risk for chronic diseases and rising healthcare costs that can affect all ages at all levels of income.

The researchers again note the inadequacy of BMI for determining body composition, which has been well documented. Lack of consideration for health risks associated with being overfat would mean more people are at risk for obesity related problems than now known.

The study authors write: "Compounding the problem further is that researchers and health-care practitioners have been known to treat terms relating to weight the same as those that relate to fat."

The researchers propose new terminology:

  • Obese and overweight should be replaced with overfat
  • Instead of using weight as a predictor of health risks clinicians should be measuring body fat composition
  • Underweight should be termed underfat, meaning a person has lost fatty tissue perhaps from excessive exercise, chronic underlying illness or starvation.

Philip B. Maffetone, Ivan Rivera-Dominguez, Paul B. Laursen. Overfat and Underfat: New Terms and Definitions Long Overdue. Frontiers in Public Health, 2017; 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpubh.2016.00279