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Food and Body Composition

March 18, 2009

Yesterday, when I was perusing my favorite women’s fitness site,* I came across this article, “Get In Touch with Your Inner Fat”, describing the difference between subcutaneous fat, the kind that accumulates under your skin and is easily visible, and visceral fat, the kind that hides in your abdominal cavity and wends its way around your internal organs. The distinction is important because visceral fat is far more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, its presence linked closely to the markers of heart disease, diabetes, and decreased organ function.

Researchers in Britain took MRIs of people who appeared thin and had BMIs within the recommended range (between 18 and 25), finding that a significant portion of these people had dangerously high levels of visceral fat. Researchers also took MRIs of sumo wrestlers, notorious for their obesity, and found the wrestlers to have very little visceral fat. They also had low levels of blood triglycerides, low cholesterol, and no markers for diabetes or insulin resistance. Sumo wrestlers tend to eat healthful foods—they just eat a lot of them, to pack on pounds—and exercise vigorously and regularly, cueing their bodies to store fat on the outside, rather than cushioned around their internal organs. Despite an average BMI of 56, to which most doctors and nutritionists would react with horror, these wrestlers were by all indications extremely healthy.

These insights highlight the limitations of the weight-loss-focused, “calories in, calories out” approach to nutrition that we still use so often in America today. As the article mentions, a diet rich in beans and whole grains encourages fat to accumulate subcutaneously rather than around the organs. This suggests that dieters who spend their time meticulously measuring out portions of chicken and skim milk and closely monitoring their weight in order to get thin might be better off shifting the basis of their diet to all the beans, whole grains, (and of course fruits and veggies) they want and not putting too much stock in the number on the scale. Healthy eating is not a matter of dieting to lose weight but choosing foods that not only contain vital nutrients, but encourage a healthy body composition. And a healthy body composition does not necessarily mean “skinny.”

Of course, the idea of being “fat on the inside,” per the article, is pretty dumb. People’s perception of fatness is a social construction, not actually based on the amount or physical distribution of fat cells present in a given person’s body. But I thought this article was a good reminder that how healthy we are is truly not about how we look, how much we weigh, or even our body fat percentage. If we think beyond “calories in, calories out” to eat truly healthful foods and challenge our bodies with vigorous physical activity, we can be the picture of health. Even if that picture looks nothing like a Hollywood actress or an Olympic athlete. Even if that picture looks a lot like a sumo wrestler.

*Okay, you caught me. It’s the only fitness site I visit.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 11:14 am

    I wish I had this article to reference in high school when I told my friends I was going to start eating healthier. They asked me how many calories I was allotting myself a day, and I told them that I wasn’t planning on paying attention to calories. They rolled their eyes and told me that wasn’t what eating healthy was all about. They were wrong! I, like always, was right! Also, that pasta dish looks so yummy – I love the texture of kale and pasta together…I’m hungry.

  2. Racahel permalink
    March 18, 2009 8:14 pm

    I like this. But it also makes me scared. Death to boneless skinless soulless chicken breasts, though.

    How do they test for visceral fat?

  3. secretnatasha permalink*
    March 19, 2009 4:08 am

    Rachael, don’t be scared! You eat so far from the SAD, and you walk around New York City all the time.

    I think the only way they can really test for visceral fat is by doing an MRI, so the best bet to avoid having to deal with it is just the usual obvious stuff–eating a whole-foods, plant-based (not exclusively plants, but plant-based ), and exercise.

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