The best way to tell if you are overweight is to take a long, hard look in a full-length mirror.
You have to be nude, and it’s wise to have a second, movable mirror that will allow you to see the buttocks and backs of the thighs in the full-length one. Look at your stomach, hips, and thighs. Do you see extra bulges and bumps? Are there flabby places where skin hangs in thick lumps?
Standard height and weight tables, derived from insurance company statistics and in use for years, have serious faults.
And height and weight don’t always tell the whole story. Muscle weighs more than fat, and there is enormous variation in the amount of muscle and fat from person to person. There is also great variation in body water among individuals.
Why is the muscle so important?
People who spend a major part of their day engaged in strenuous physical activity have a much greater amount of skeletal muscle than the average person. Athletes have very large muscles, and although their bodies look fine in relation to their height, their weight is more than the standard tables recommend.
Professional dancers often have large muscles but no fat. Weightlifters and boxers have a very large arm, shoulder, and chest muscles. Tennis players have a considerably larger arm, shoulder, and even leg muscles on the side of their dominant hand.
Skeletal muscles are able to enlarge when called upon repeatedly to do more work. When you gain weight, they enlarge because they have to carry and lift an increasing amount of fat. The more sedentary your lifestyle, the less muscle build-up occurs. One 143kg or 290lb woman who fasted and drank only water for seven weeks lost 70kg (140lb). At 73kg (150lb) she hit a plateau. No matter what she did, her weight stayed the same.
The weight that wouldn’t budge was muscle, which had gradually been acquired to carry around an extra 70kg of fat. A year or more at the new lower weight would be needed for the excess muscle to atrophy, or reduce in size.
The size of skeletal muscles usually decreases with aging. Many people work at beating this trend by remaining immensely physically active as the years go by; they retain larger muscles.
Unless they are very short, people who are less than 10-15kg or 20-30lb overweight do not have to make extra muscle to carry their weight around. If they change from a sedentary life to an active one, muscle replaces fat. Muscle helps the body breathe and move around. This makes a big contribution to physical fitness.
What about fat?
Fat does nothing to help the body breathe and move but is an ideal way to store energy. Your body takes food molecules and makes three types of fat: triglyceride, lipoprotein, cholesterol.
Triglyceride, a liquid at body temperature, is the main form in which fat is stored in fat cells till needed. When you eat more or less energy than you burn, triglyceride is carried from the liver to the fat cells or from the fat cells to the liver. Although it can exist by itself inside fat or liver cells, it is carried in the blood by the lipoproteins, special transport molecules.
Cholesterol is used to make cell walls, sex hormones, and bile. The cholesterol we make in our own body is called endogenous. Fatty foods increase endogenous cholesterol. Certain foods are high in ready-made or exogenous cholesterol.
This substance increases with aging, but people with an inherited tendency toward obesity start to make too much in infancy. Progressive weight gain causes increased production of endogenous cholesterol. Weight loss, on the other hand, lowers it.
If you eat a huge high-calorie meal that leaves you with unused food energy, your liver and all of your fat cells will be busy converting it to triglyceride. The more fat cells you have, the more triglyceride will be made. Each is a triglyceride factory.
If you eat that huge meal only rarely, you might find that you don’t gain weight. The calories that can’t be converted quickly to triglyceride leave the body as heat.
Steady overeating even in relatively small amounts, is much more likely to lead to overweight than infrequent overeating. The body has time to increase its resources for handling surplus food energy. How? By making fat cells.
There are many places where fat cells can be made:
- beneath the skin;
- in the areas surrounding the heart, stomach and intestinal tract, kidneys, spleen, liver, and pancreas;
- or between the bony frame and the lining of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis.
Our bodies can also gradually increase the size of existing fat cells.
How many fat cells have we?
Nobody knows for sure. One theory says people who have been overweight from childhood have more and larger fat cells, but this has not been proven. The walls of fat cells are tissue-paper thin. When filled with fat, they can be seen under a microscope. Empty, they are uncountable. Many are used for protein.
Which fat is the hardest to lose?
The human body was programmed to cope with feast and famine. Nature has made every effort to provide us with effective energy storage by giving us a special type of fat tissue called brown fat.
Although the triglyceride inside brown fat cells is the same as in all fat, the cells themselves are different. The walls are thicker, the nuclei larger, the blood vessels supplying the cells more numerous. The cells are also packed more densely together, and the nuclei turn out more triglyceride – and turn it out faster – than ordinary fat cells do. Brown fat is meant for special survival tasks.
Babies have brown fat that disappears after the first few years of life. Overweight children who were overweight babies didn’t lose all their brown fat. Overfeeding of children during the toddler stage is the culprit.
A metabolic factor also makes weight loss more difficult by minimizing losses of stored energy. About the third week of a diet, you get to the point where the scale doesn’t budge. The only safe way to increase the amount of heat loss is exercise.
What part does water play?
There is more water by weight in the human body than living cells and body parts. The average lean adult is 62-67 percent water, the average baby about 82 percent.
Your fastest weight changes are due to water loss. Up to 2kg or 4lb of water can be lost in just a few days, and this will show up on the scale within a few hours. On the other hand, fat loss or gain takes at least several weeks to be significant on the scale.
Body water is not pure or tap-like water. It is saltwater – but more dilute than ocean water. No matter how much salt you eat, your body keeps its salt at the proper dilution – about 0.95 percent.
Your body is also programmed to conserve salt. Aldosterone, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, saves salt for the body. The kidneys do their bidding to trap the salt and prevent it from leaving the body.
Stress increases the amount of salt-saving hormone. The tensions and frustrations so common to dieting and overweight are typical of those that trigger its production.
Women have an especially strong salt-retention chemistry. The female sex hormone, estrogen, is a potent salt-saver.
What can be done?
The healthiest way to take care of unwanted body water is to reduce salt in your food. (Hypertension is sometimes lessened by a low-salt diet.) Our bodies were not designed to consume large quantities of salt that have become part of our diet. Processed foods contain many times as much salt as natural foods.
People who are dieting often take diuretic or water pills, which prevent the kidneys from trapping salt. However, the body is programmed to overcome this effect, and the more salt-saving hormone is produced. The result? People who take water pills for weight loss gradually become resistant to their effects.
Are diuretic pills harmful?
In addition to disturbing the balance of salt and water, these pills take potassium out of the body. And potassium is very important. Although there is ample potassium in natural foods, many overweight people eat mainly processed foods with too much sodium and not enough potassium.
In order to keep our cells healthy, nourished, and cleansed of wastes, a complex pumping action has to take place. Potassium is a vital element in this.
Water pills cause abnormal loss of potassium, and chronic potassium loss causes tiredness and muscle weakness. And cardiac muscle cells need potassium to do their job, or the consequences may be serious.
What is cellulite?
Many dieters are bothered by flab (also called cellulite) – soft, doughy, cottage cheesy appearing skin with orange peel indentations. What causes it?
When fat cells are partly filled with triglyceride and the potassium pumps are tired, sodium and water often enter the cells. Water pills, which remove potassium, make fat cell pumps even weaker. The result is cellulite.
Once even small amounts of body water violate the interiors of tired fat cells, it is very difficult to get the water out. The only permanent solution is a steady program of gradual weight loss via a healthy diet plus temperate, moderate exercise.
Substitutes are one way of getting less salt without giving up saltiness. These products are almost all various potassium salts. (Do not use these without your doctor’s advice if you have a kidney ailment.) As potassium salt does not taste the same as the sodium salt, it is wise to use it sparingly until your tastes adjust.
Can you break the salt habit?
The common habit of salting before tasting is unnecessary. Follow a natural diet without adding salt for four days and chances are you won’t notice its absence.
It all comes down to this: Fat is what you want to lose. Fat loss never begins to show on the scale until after about three weeks of eating less food energy than your body burns. Fat loss shows on the scale only over the long term. So don’t let yourself be fooled by fast water loss. And don’t hazard unhealthy changes in your natural sodium and potassium balance.