Testing Your Fatness

Many people are shocked when I inform them that they are clinically obese.  I often hear, “I thought I was just 15 pounds overweight.”  Weight can creep up on you slowly, over years, so you acclimate and become somewhat comfortable with this weight gain.  But then, years later, you find yourself asking “what happened to me?”

Obese people are fully functioning human beings and are the people you see at work, at the mall, and at the restaurant.  Obesity is categorized as grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3.  Grade 1 obesity refers to the point at which the risk of disease related to weight starts to increase, and it goes up from there.  Health risks and clinical obesity are not limited to the grossly overweight.

Being overweight refers to having excessive body weight, while obesity refers to an excess of fat.  The accepted test for obesity is a Body Mass Index, which is a formula using a person’s height and weight.  This test has drawbacks, especially for those who are very muscular.  Muscular men for example, can have very little fat and be considered obese on a Body Mass Index because of the weight of their muscle. While the test is not accurate for everyone, it is a good indicator for most of the population and is accepted by the medical community worldwide.

Underwater weighing is the gold-standard of body composition testing but requires special equipment. This is usually only done at hospitals or universities. A popular test for body composition is bio-electrical impedance, which are the scales that you stand on, or the hand-held gizmos often seen in gyms.  This measures how fast an electrical impulse travels through your body and thus can determine how much body fat you have.  These can be accurate if done correctly and with the right population.  However, they are very inaccurate with the obese and with the very lean population.  Because anything the messes with your hydration will affect the electrical impulse, the results can be skewed if you are menstruating, taking medication, drinking coffee or tea, consuming alcohol, etc.  Anything that affects the water level of your body can affect the results of this test!

Skinfold calipers measure the amount of fat being stored under your skin. A tester will “pinch” your skin at various parts of your body, take these measurements and plug them into a formula, which determines your overall amount of body fat.  There are two big drawbacks to this test.  First is the tester, an inexperienced tester will get inaccurate results.  Body fat testing is a science and the test must be educated.  Secondly, there are specific formulas for specific populations so you cannot use the same formula for men, women, and children.  Unfortunately, many health clubs use inexperienced testers and one formula for all populations. Like the bio-electrical impedance, skinfold testing is not accurate in the higher levels of obesity.

If you are wanting to track your body composition, I would recommend the Body Mass Index in conjunction with an experienced tester using skinfold calipers and the proper formula for a person your age.


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