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Does the Scale Really Tell the Whole Story?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We have all heard the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Then why is it that we as a society equate thinness to being healthy and fit when in all reality there is a growing epidemic of what researchers are now referring to as ‘normal weight obesity AKA: skinny fat.

How can that be? People, who from all outward appearances seem thin and fit with very little visible fat, can actually be in the same high risk category as many of their heavier unfit colleagues.

We've previously blogged about whether it's better to be fit and fat or skinny and unfit. Now the studies are showing that it isn't necessarily what the scale reads that puts one at high risk but instead overall body fat composition, especially visceral fat. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource have shown that normal weight individuals who have higher levels of body fat are at an increased risk for developing metabolic syndrome, hypertension, high triglycerides levels, and pre-diabetes, many of the same conditions seen in the overweight/obese population.

Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D who led the study states that "the definition of obesity is having excess fat, not excess weight.” Once again proving that the scale is not the most reliable source for many individuals for determining one's health and fitness.

So why is it with all the science and technology available to us, that we still allow a number on the scale, the size of an article of clothing, or even Hollywood celebrities to determine whether we are at our proper weight?

Many times those who are afflicted with this condition, 'skinny fat', are unaware of their risk until the time they are diagnosed with diseases that often accompany it, such as hypertension, heart disease, or type II diabetes. Without any outward appearance of this so-called belly fat, these patients are often caught by surprise with the terminology 'normal weight obesity' when they have never experienced a weight issue any time throughout their life.

Studies have shown that by increasing activity via both cardio and strength training, in addition to following a healthy, nutrient filled diet, one can actually shrink the deep internal visceral, or organ surrounding, fat within the abdomen, therefore reversing many of the symptoms that go along with this condition.

So the next time you are in line at the grocery store or working out at the gym next to someone who by all outward appearances seems to be of 'normal' weight know that appearances can be deceiving. You might be quite surprised that you are healthier even though you may weigh a little more on the scale.

Would you be willing to weigh a little more on the scale knowing that you are within a normal range of body fat or would you be willing to forgo that for a smaller number on the scale? Have you ever had your body composition done only to be caught by surprise that it was higher then you expected?

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thanks Report
I think we give too much power to the number on the scale. Non scale victories are important too
LOSER05 12/20/2020
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Hi! I've had my body comp measured at Dexifit twice and I am going for a third time. I am also getting my rmr done. I was thrilled to learn that I had slightly more lean than fat. I hope it has shifted a bit more to lean. After losing 120 pound I have plateaued, so I am focusing more on body comp and planning meals around my RMR. Thanks for the article! Report
Thank you. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
I don't depend on the scale entirely, I also use measurements. Report
interesting. Report
Thank you Report
The number on the scale doesn't matter to me as long as I look and feel healthy and my body fat percentage is a healthy range. Report
It's my understanding that you do need a certain amount of fat around your organs to cushion and protect them. Clearly too much of anything is a bad thing, but it would seem that no fat at all in the body must be unhealthy too. It's clearly a very complex issue and I wish scientists would wait until they had some more concrete information before releasing the bits they have discovered. Report
It is important to me personally... not sure it should be, but it is. I would be happy with a smaller size in jeans. I just know as I have been losing inches I am not happy that the pounds are not going down. Report
I don't think that what the scale says is not that important. I think its better to be fit and healthy. I know quit a few people who I think are too thin, and most of them have more medical problem then the friends i have that are considered overweigh. Report
i dont believe in scale in terms of healthy life stlye,i go by healthy statu,cloth well fit,other will fit in,good luck everyone. Report
everyone told me that i look skinner than my scale says and when i did the body fat, it was true; i'm at a normal body fat and weight. Report
I am 5'5" and weigh 165 pounds all the charts tell me that I am obese based on weight, height and age. I currently wear a size 8 and definately don't consider myself obese or unhealthy. Report
Mentally I know that I should be okay with gravity if it means I'm healthy, but I've never really been happy with my body. After marriage and an added 15 pounds in two years I'm more unhappy with my image than I've been in a long long time. So while I'd like people to think that I'm okay with being "fit and fat", my gut reaction is "I want to be skinny."

Self-reflection aside, I think it's a powerful study and definately something that should be more in the forefront of the national outlook on what it means to be "healthy" and "thin." Little girls who aspire to be skinny like Hannah Montana and look like Barbie should know that sometimes skinny isn't healthy. If we as a society can stop one more little girl from having my gut reaction, than we've done a good thing in the world. Report
I am lucky enough to be going through a program through the nutritionist at my doctor's office that focuses on this very thing. The goal of the program is to lower your body fat and raise your lean muscle mass (through dietary changes, and exercise). At the first appointment they show how if a person wants to lose weight there are two ways. One is to just eat a lot less. The other is to take in the correct amount of calories and exercise the proper amount. The first path leads to your body eating it's own lean muscle mass in order to survive, and storing all and any incoming calories as fat and slowing your metabolism down so that it needs much less to survive. The second leads to more lean muscle mass and less fat, speeding up your metabolism so that you need more calories for maintenance. On the outside it can look exactly the same.

We also do a body composition test at every appointment which tells me exactly what percentage body fat/lean muscle mass I am at. It's so cool to be able to see that muscle mass go up and body fat go down, even if the scale doesn't tell me much. I know that eventually the scale will go down, because my metabolism is getting faster... because I can SEE it on the test even before it comes through on my body. Very very helpful in staying on track!! And even more helpful to keep me from cutting back on calories or waiting too long between meals because now I know what that does to harm my metabolism. It's been so enlightening and educational for sure!! Report
I have been too skinny & agree with others that it is not about seeing how low you can go. Now that I am on the higher side of my healthy range, I want to find a happy balance right in the middle of my low & high. Report
I don't think a scale can be a measure of fitness Report
I don't necesarily want to be skinny I just want to be healthy. I do believe that there is such a thing as too skinny. Most people even kow don't think that I am overweight. But, I feel very unfit because I get out of breath after running less than a block. I just want to be healthy but, looking nice would be an added bonus. Report
I would be glad to have some good "fat" and have the scales read a little higher, I have no desire to weigh 100 pounds, but I do like the sound of 132 Report
I just turned 45 last week. It's unrealistic for me to want to look like I did when I was 20, but it's realistic to believe I can work toward feeling as well or better than I did when I was 20. For me, weight loss is only partially about reduction in size. What I crave most is energy to meet the demands of my life, like walking up 2 flights of stairs without getting out of breath, like doing all my own gardening, like being able to pick up my two-year-old granddaughter. And for her sake as well as mine, I want as much health as possible for as long as possible so I can see her grow up. Report
The scale does lie. There is no way it can gauge how skinny or fat you might be. I wear a size 6 jeans but my weight is around 150 pounds. I am extremely active and have been my whole life. I love to ask people how much they think i weigh I usually get around 120, the actual number shocks people. So don't think the scale is the absolute measure of health or fitness. Report
I tend to believe that we put too much emphasis on the losing weight. If you go for exercising properly and regularly, this will make you fit pretty soon after you start - no matter how fat you are to start with. If you continue with this lifestyle, you will soon be getting a better body anyway. You can help yourself by trying to eat the right stuff, but I don't think you need to diet SO LONG AS you don't make a pig of yourself - an occasional extra thing won't harm just so long as it stays occasional.

I found it works pretty well. BUT it does take getting yourself into a routine which you need to keep and not just stop cos you're feeling well and no longer getting exhausted or breathless at the least bit of effort. Just cos you're feeling better does not meet you are 100% fit. Report
I think a large person can be healthy if all their stats are normal. BMI seems to be such a poor tool to measure health since it does not apply the same to everyone. As with everything, I think people have to use reason either way regarding being fit and too thin or too fat. Report
It's not difficult as a concept: one may be thin-looking and have fat-clogged arteries or a fatty get the picture? Simply being thin and fitting in teeny sizes is certainly no measure of fitness or health. People cannot believe that my "optimal weight," according to insurance scales or even WW, is 14 pounds less than I currently weigh, simply because I'm in fairly good shape, muscle-wise, and I look pretty decent in smaller sizes. Fact is, I probably do, indeed, need to lose that excess weight so that it isn't a strain on my heart or vertebrae or joints. And my cholesterol levels could stand with improvement, too! Report
This whole notion of fit and fat makes absolutely no sense to me. It is a total oxymoron. You use body fat rather than body weight to define fatness is somebody whom you label "skinny fat" but yet use just the opposite standard for those labels "fit and fat". Why the double standard? If "fat" means excess body fat, then it doesn't matter if body weight is 100 or 300 or anything in between. You are still fat and therefore not fit. Conversely, if your body weight is 200 pounds and your body fat percentage is 15%, then you are not fat. So how can somebody be "fit and fat"? Report
I've had the body composition done twice and each time it was better than before. Now they tell me I need to be careful because it can be too low. That's what blew my mind. I eat well and exercise using strength training and cardio at least 6 days a week most of the time. Hopefully that is working for me, but it's mind blowing that a person can get too little body fat too. And I do put a lot of stock in the scale numbers. Report
I think having a realistic sense of self plays a factor in this too. I know that in reality I will not ever be a size 4. i'm just not built for it. I have a number goal for my weight, but I know that if I am feeling better about myself and have energy and am providing a good, positive role model for my daughter in terms of body image and eating habits, then I'm ahead. Report
On the other hand, according to the charts, my normal weight should be around 115-125, but I don't feel healthy, or look healthy unless I'm 110-115. So my goal is 115, for right now. Report
I totally agree, scales these days tell more about body composition than they have ever done before. I believe, look at your clothes; if they become looser congratulations you are loosing weight. Remember the frame we carry around that holds our body together that takes responsibility for our weight as well. My blood pressure is fine it always sits around 120/80 but my cholestral is my biggest problem last time it was 7, but I am trying with the help of "spark people to get it down." I have had a thyroid problem the same as both my daughters so that makes it hard for keeping your weight under control, it is not excuses but we must consider health and metabolism in our make up. I believe personally take in consideration what is on the inside, excercise regulary, concentrate on eating correctly and keep an eye on the clothes and regular check ups at the doctors, as a bonus support from "Spark People". Report
I can't help but wonder though if it's dangerous to lead people to believe that they can be carrying extra pounds of fat around and it still not put a strain on their heart just because their blood pressure and cholesterol is fine. I'm all for feeling good about yourself no matter how you look, but using the "fit but fat" tag line is beginning to sound more and more like an excuse to carry around those extra pounds.

That being said, I have nothing but respect for any person who is making an effort to live a healthy life, be they thin and trying to gain weight or overweight and trying to lose some extra pounds. After all I was carrying those pounds around myslef once. There, I've said my piece, let the estrogen fueled beating of me commence. Report
I understand what is being said here. I try my best to look at things this way but I am not happy with my size. Of course I want to be healthier too, but I don't think I would be happy until I am healthy AND thin. Not that this is how it should be, but I can't seem to catch on to that attitude of just being healthy no matter what size I am. Report
This is one of those articles which does great damage. Any intelligent person knows that a few pounds over your BMI is not dangerous, but the BMI gives you a target and if you are many pounds over it, you are in danger from lots of serious diseases and need to do something about it.
This kind of article gives seriously overweight people a chance to be complacent, “Oh I won’t bother to get down to that target weight, because I feel healthy, and a Spark People article said that’s what is important”.
My humble advice - don’t let anyone or thing give you an excuse not to get rid of that unnecessary weight!!
I just got tested. Here I am all big and no pre-diabeties. Maybe it's the walking.
I really need to start breaking out the tape measure that's laying around here somewhere. I've had days where I've eaten healthy or worked out or moved a lot and thought, wow, this is gonna pay off...and nope! Nothing! But yet my pants and shirt felt much looser overall!

I also think I'm going to have to send my friend this link. She really needs to know it's not all about weight!! Report
Beechnut, I otally agree, I think that's the dichotomy in which most of U.S. society is trapped, fit is not necessarily hot, and vice versa,I've long known that the scale does not tell the entire story, but I thought more in terms ofso does the tape measure, or clothing size, There are some hot and heavy people out there Kathleen turner and Queen Latifah come to mind, and thin and unhot, Olive Oyl, Don Knotts:) Report
Geat information about scales. Thanks!!!!! Report
It's also not a matter of a goal weight so much as a happy weight. According to charts at 5'3 I'm supposed to be 130 as a max weight. At 150 though is my happy weight as when I was 150 I was fit and in a size 3/4. At 130 I was fit but looked too skinny as I tend to carry alot of muscle. That's what we should concentrate on though...those charts do not take into account muscle vs fat Report
As a person with a large frame, I really appreciate and agree with this article. I'm 5'3". At my fittest, I was a size 12, and weighed just under 170, but my body fat was well within the healthy range, and all my friends kept telling me how attractive I was. (Yeah, I've gained a bit back since then, but I'm working on it). According to any BMI chart, I was still considered way over weight, even though it was about perfect for me. Report
I've always wondered if it was "okay" to carry a little extra weight but still feel in shape. I love to exercise and it makes me feel good but I can't seem to shake these last 10 pounds or so and I'm starting to think I'm not meant to - which I have slowly accepted! I think the study has some truth to it! Report
I have been screaming this to my skinny friends who always ragging on large people. I have a couple friends that don't eat enough to keep a bird alive. When they eat it is something sweet. Now, mind you they probably weigh somewhere around 100lbs soaking wet but they have no stamina, they are anemic and they have no muscle they are weak. I would not change places with them in a heart beat... I want to be healthier not change one problem (too much body fat), for another problem (being weak and sickly). There is a healthy medium and that is what I am striving for. Even a car that has no fuel looks good sitting still but it can't do anything or go anywhere. Report
I find I am getting a much more realistic measure of my progress with the tape vs. the scale. According to the scale, I am down only 10 lbs. But I have lost SIX inches around my waist and four from my hips and my body looks better than it ever has. There hasn't been a ton of weight loss lately, but the inches continue to come off as I maintain a healthy lifestyle of running, lifting and eating healthy foods. I find the tape is a much better accurate measure of success overall. Even looking in the mirror tells me more about my health than the scale. Report
I agree with this entirely but I just can't get past the mental block of the scale. Even SP is set up to emphasize one's "goal weight." I don't think I'll ever be able to entirely overlook the scale as a measure of success. Report
I think I would rather be healthy with muscle definition, although I do have belly fat. I have about 10 pounds until I reach my goal weight and I also know that the belly fat I do have leads to health problems later in life. So, I keep hoping that as the numbers on the scale go down, so will the belly fat. It does kind of go hand in hand. Report
Because of what the scale says I am obese. I am 5'8 size 12/14 and I will be completing my third marathon this year on Sunday. Yes, I am trying to get some of those pounds off, but I do not care that I am the fat chick at most of my races. I am in better shape then most people (not to mention the determination). Using a couple of different fat measurements tools I am "fit" (yes, they take into consideration weight) but weight alone, I am obese! Report
when my daughter started weighing herself every morning,and getting stressed that the weight wasn't pouring off of her (she's 19) I told her that she needed to start using the measuring tape instead. That old addage muscle weighs more then fat still rings true. I'd rather be a toned up 150 pounds,and a size 6,then a flabby 135 and a size 8/10 Report
Yes!!! This is what I have been telling everyone for quite a while!! I'm so excited that I'm going to link this article from my blog in Myspace. I've never had any serious weight problems and I've been overweight my whole life. I'm not saying that overweight is good. It just proves all those judgmental people out there what it really is about. Of course there are going to be some sarcastic people out there, but hey! As long as I feel good and am healthy, who cares what they say? Report
I would rather be fit then too skinny and have not definition. Right now I would love to drop some weight but am concentrating more on strength and building muscle and definition. Overall my health is excellent. Last physical the chain smoking too thin doctor's assistant told me I needed to lose weight. I asked how many push ups she could do, none was her reply. I told her I could do at least 25 in a row, I'm fine thank you. Report