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What on earth is ‘overfat’?

What on earth is ‘overfat’?

You may be familiar with the terms ‘obesity’ and ‘overweight’. But what about “overfat”?

Whilst obesity and overweight focus on a person’s weight, experts are spruiking a new term they would like you to embrace: ‘overfat’.

Just a word of caution – Overfat is not the same as ‘skinny fat’. Overfat refers to having enough excess body fat to impair health.

Surprisingly, people who are overfat can be a normal weight (according to body mass index, BMI).But…They have increased risk factors for chronic diseases, such as high abdominal fat.

This notion was put forth in an article in the January 2017 issue of the journal “Frontiers in Public Health”.

According to the authors’ classification, people fall into one of three categories: overfat, normal body-fat percentage and underfat.

They suggest that up to 76 percent of the world’s population is overfat. Ring the alarm bells.

9 to 10 per cent may be underfat. That leaves just 14 percent within the normal body-fat percentage.

Healthy body fat levels differ according to age and gender.

So, the authors note, for a normal weight 21-39-year-old woman, a healthy level is 21-32 per cent fat. Meanwhile, the normal range for men of the same age and BMI is 8-20 percent body fat.

But how do you know if you’re overfat?


“It’s not always easy to tell,” says Dr Georgia Rigas, Chair of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Obesity Network.

“This is a classic case of you cannot, nor should you, judge a book by its cover.”

It is best to go see your GP. By using a range of tools, your GP can tell how much fat you have, where you’re carrying it and, most importantly, how it’s impairing your health.

One of those tools is BMI, which assesses your weight in relation to height. However, it has significant limitations, including a tendency to underestimate fat levels.

Waist circumference is better, the authors note, as it has a “very strong association with health risk”.

While the word ‘overfat’ may remind you of the much-touted phrase ‘skinny fat’, the new term isn’t just the latest buzzword.

The term ‘skinny fat’ was bandied about to describe those who appear lean on the outside and have low muscle mass, but carry excess visceral fat (fat around internal organs).

Meanwhile, many overfat people appear overweight, or sport beer bellies.

Also, ‘skinny fat’ focused on appearance, and the crux of ‘overfat’ is that these people have enough extra fat to put them at increased risk of disease, regardless of how they look.

There are the mechanical effects, which lead to accelerated wear and tear of joints.

Then there is the neurohormone (any of a group of substances produced by specialised cells (neurosecretory cells) structurally typical of the nervous, rather than of the endocrine, system) effects, which can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, infertility, cancer and other diseases.

Last, of all, there are psychological effects, including depression and anxiety.

Dr Rigas agrees. She says “Many of those psychological effects come from the “significant amounts of shame” people feel when carrying excess fat”.

Not even the word ‘fat’ seems to apportion blame, feeding into the ubiquitous notion that carrying excessive amounts of it is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

Dr Rigas adds “I assure you, no one chooses to be overweight or obese and have all the physical and emotional problems that come along with it.”

There needs to be a better “destigmatising” terminology to address the overweight or obese issues, as only then can key pre-emptive and corrective strategies be implemented to help reduce the risk of disease.

However, she doesn’t believe the term ‘overfat’ fits the bill.

“Labelling people ‘fat’ simply creates further barriers to treatment.”


Case Study

Dr Rigas uses a combination of BMI, waist circumference and bioimpedance analysis (BIA), which measures how easily an electrical current can flow through the body. (By doing that, BIA can then estimate total body fat.)

In certain circumstances, Dr Rigas also employs DEXA scans. Though they provide “accurate and precise” measurements of body fat, they also involve exposure to ionising radiation, which is why they’re reserved for specific cases only.

Originally published by SMH 18/1/2017 – Evelyn Lewin

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