The reason it is important to define obesity is that we are in the midst of an epidemic of obesity. According to the World Health Organization, obesity around the world has doubled since 1980!
Humanity won’t change as a collective whole until individual humans change. Let’s characterize it for an individual and then ask what, if anything, can be done about it.
There is no general problem about how to define obesity: if you are carrying so much excess body fat that you have (i) a greater-than-normal risk of disability or serious health problems or (ii) a shorter-than-normal life expectancy, then you are obese.
There is, however, a difficulty applying this definition to individuals. The difficulty is that there does not seem to be one way to define obesity such that it selects all, and only, obese individuals.
Let’s briefly consider the four common ways to define obesity.
First Way to Define Obesity
Define obesity just by looking.
Since we tend to perceive ourselves through the distorting lens of our self-image, it can be difficult to perceive that we are obese just by looking. Stand naked in front of a full-length mirror and just look.
If you are unsure, why not ask a knowledgeable friend? It may be obvious to your friend whether or not you are obese. If you are, are you morbidly obese? If you are not, are you nevertheless overweight (or underweight)?
Alternatively, hire a licensed medical professional to look at you. Spending a little time and money that way may well be a valuable investment.
Second Way to Define Obesity
Define obesity as a percentage of your amount of body fat.
Males naturally carry less body fat than females, so your sex makes a difference.
How can you determine your amount of body fat?
What I do is to estimate my percentage of body fat at home using inexpensive plastic calipers to do a skinfold test. You measure several times and take the average measurement and convert it.
Unfortunately, the table that comes with the calipers is poor and it takes a while to become skilled at taking the measurements.
You can purchase other tests that are more accurate. The best are: hydrostatic underwater weighing, dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), BodPod, or BodyMetrix. Any of these procedures is somewhat expensive, but it is individualized and objective.
Or just go swimming. Do you sink like a stone? You are probably not obese. Do you float easily and have difficult going much below the surface? You are probably obese.
It’s also not clear what the ideal percentages should be. Are they 30% for males and 35% for females? If not, what are they?
Third Way to Define Obesity
Define obesity in terms of your Body Mass Index (BMI) number.
This is the most popular method used by physicians today. It yields an objective number.
If your BMI number is 30 or above, you are obese. If it is 40 or above, you are morbidly obese. If it is between 25 and 29.9, you are overweight. If it is between 18.5 and 24.9, you are of normal weight. If it is 18.49 or below, you are underweight.
It is also free. To calculate it, measure your weight in pounds and height in inches. Then multiply your weight by 703 and divide that number by the inches squared. (Alternatively, take your weight measured in kilograms and divide that number by your height measured in meters squared.)
Unfortunately, because a given volume of muscle is much denser and heavier than an equal volume of fat, this way to define obesity doesn’t work well for some individuals. Muscular athletes or bodybuilders with a very low percentage of body fat will be determined to be obese when they obviously aren’t.
Despite such false positives, it’s a useful method for most people.
Fourth Way to Define Obesity
Define obesity in terms of being 20% more than your ideal weight.
Well, how do you know your ideal weight?
Look it up in a table. Decades ago the tables that most physicians used were from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. They gave ideal weights based on height and dependent upon your body frame (small, medium, or large).
Today, there are other tables available from other sources such as the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Army. They are easy to find.
Why not use the first, third, and fourth ways mentioned above to characterize yourself? Why not, if you happen to have a physician’s appointment soon, use the second method as well?
If they all agree that you are obese, you are probably obese.
What should you do if you are obese?
It’s impossible to know what will bring about any specific future result. Please don’t panic into frantic action!
For example, forget going on a starvation diet. They fail. Yes, they can work in the short run, but don’t you want lasting fat loss? Short of checking yourself into a concentration camp, starvation diets not only fail but will leave you worse off than you were when you began one.
I suggest, instead, that you increase your understanding. Start by learning the facts.
For example, have you been riding the weight roller coaster?
If so, one reason may be that you are ignoring a critical fact, namely, it is more difficult to maintain fat loss than it is to lose fat initially. By itself, this may explain why the five year cure rate for obesity is only around 2%.
Furthermore, obesity is a consequence of a number of factors such as insulin resistance. If you will educate yourself to understand what is causing it and eliminate those causes, over time you can stabilize your percentage of body fat at a healthier level.
I happen to be co-webmaster of two websites that may help you to educate yourself. Together, they provide useful, clear information about how to improve your thinking if you are either overweight or obese. They are free, and there’s nothing even to purchase. Why not check them out?
For the first one, which is much more extensive, click here.
For the second one, which is newer and under construction but focused solely on obesity, click here.