About Obesity

March 5, 2012

What is Obesity?
Though we all use the terms "fat" and "obese" casually in conversation, there is a medical definition of the condition and yes, obesity is considered a health "condition."

"Obesity" specifically refers to an excessive amount of body fat. "Overweight" refers to an excessive amount of body weight that includes muscle, bone, fat, and water. As a rule, women have more body fat than men. Most health care professionals agree that men with more than 25 percent body fat and women with more than 30 percent body fat are obese. These numbers should not be confused with the body mass index (BMI), however, which is more commonly used by health care professionals to determine the effect of body weight on the risk for some diseases.

How is Obesity Measured
Measuring the exact amount of a person's body fat is not easy. The most accurate measures are to weigh a person underwater or in a chamber that uses air displacement to measure body volume, or to use an X-ray test called Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry, also known as DEXA. These methods are not practical for the average person, and are done only in research centers with special equipment.

There are simpler methods to estimate body fat. One is to measure the thickness of the layer of fat just under the skin in several parts of the body. Another involves sending a harmless amount of electricity through a person's body. Results from these methods, however, can be inaccurate if done by an inexperienced person or on someone with extreme obesity.

Because measuring a person's body fat is difficult, health care professionals often rely on other means to diagnose obesity. Weight-for-height tables, used for decades, have a range of acceptable weights for a person of a given height. One problem with these tables is that there are many versions, all with different weight ranges. Another problem is that they do not distinguish between excess fat and muscle. According to the tables, a very muscular person may be classified obese when he or she is not. The BMI is less likely to misidentify a person's appropriate weight-for-height range.