What is a healthy weight? The healthy weight range spans several dress sizes, as do people’s opinions on what looks best. It’s important to remember that healthy weight and body fat ranges have a lower limit as well as an upper one. While it’s a very controversial subject, most people’s idea of what looks good is somewhere within the healthy range. This post looks at how to assess whether your weight and, more importantly, body fat, is at a healthy level.
What does overweight mean?
Is it a matter of opinion whether someone is overweight, or something that we can clearly define? We use the term a lot, but generally what we mean is over-fat. Weighing a lot isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is weighing a lot because you are carrying large amounts of body fat. According to the World Health Organisation:
Overweight and obesity are defined as ”abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health”
So when we describe someone as overweight, we usually mean they have excess body fat. Whether or not carrying large amounts of body fat is unattractive is something that is hotly debated. But it’s pretty much accepted medically that it is bad for health.
What does underweight mean?
The definition of underweight is more straightforward – “having a body weight too low to be healthy”. While having a high body weight isn’t always unhealthy as it can be due to muscle, having a very low body weight is always unhealthy.
How to tell if you are a healthy weight.
There are several ways of assessing whether your weight is something you need to be concerned about from a health point of view. Only a few give a highly accurate assessment, but all of them will give a pretty good idea as to whether there is a problem. Ideally if you are using home methods, you should do 2 or more assessments to get a clear picture, as they all have margins of error.
Assessing your weight
To find out if weight is a problem, we need to compare it to height in some way because on its own it is meaningless. There are 2 easy ways you can do this.
These usually have at least 4 categories: underweight, healthy weight, overweight and obese. You just need to look at where your height and weight intersect on the graph to see which category you fall into.
If you don’t like reading graphs, another way of looking at the height/weight ratio is using the Body Mass Index calculation (BMI). This is calculated as follows:
Like the height/weight chart, BMI is also classified from underweight to obese. The classifications are:
Less than 18.5 is underweight
18.5 to 24,9 is normal weight
25 to 29.9 is overweight
30+ is obese
In some cases, the weight to height charts and BMI can be misleading. If someone is very fit and muscular, he/she could class as overweight due to the weight of muscle mass. However, for most people it’s a fairly good guide to how healthy their weight is.
Assessing your waist measurement
Simple waist measurement
Measuring your waist is as easy as weighing yourself and can give you some useful information about whether the way you store your body fat is likely to be a problem for you. Fat stored around the waist is more of a potential health problem than fat on the hips. Even if your height/weight ratio looks good, if a large proportion of your fat is around your middle you could be at increased risk of health problems such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Ideally, men should have a waist measurement below 94cm and women below 80cm.
Waist to hip ratio
This gives a better idea of fat distribution than just measuring the waist. To work out the waist to hip ratio, simply measure the waist and hips in any unit and divide the waist measurement by the hips measurement. If the number is more than 1 for men, or 0.85 for women, this indicates a potential health risk. So, even if the waist measurement itself doesn’t indicate the person is at risk, the waist to hip ratio could.
Assessing you Body fat
As mentioned above, when we say overweight, we’re usually referring to the amount of fat a person carries. Fat is the problem – muscle weight doesn’t pose any health risks. As far as appearance goes, there’s a wide range of opinion on whether or not muscle bulk is attractive, especially for women, but generally people think of muscle as being more attractive than fat.
So if the question boils down to how much fat you’re carrying, maybe this is the best way to judge if you are “overweight”. The thing is that it’s not as easy to measure as weight and waist circumference. However, it’s a lot easier than it used to be, with bioelectrical impedance devices now being fairly cheap and easy to use at home. These are the main ways available to measure body fat:
Gym instructors usually use this method to measure body fat. The fat on particular parts of the body is pinched between callipers. The measurements are then compared to norm charts to get an estimation of overall body fat. This method is reasonably reliable, but is only an estimate.
You can buy the callipers quite cheaply, but you need someone else to take the measurements. Also, taking the measurements accurately is a skill that professionals develop with experience, so readings may not be as accurate as you would get at the gym.
Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis
BIA devices send a small, harmless electrical current through the body. This measures the resistance in the various tissues and works out an estimate of body fat percentage based on this. It’s reasonably accurate, but the result will be affected by how hydrated you are.
There’s a fairly wide choice of devices available at a reasonable cost – even some bathroom scales include BIA.
More accurate methods of body fat assessment
Underwater weighing, dexa scan and the “Bod Pod” all require elaborate equipment. Underwater weighing is generally only available in research settings. Dexa scans and the “Bod Pod” are offered at some private centres and colleges, but are quite expensive.
What should you do if you are not a healthy weight?
If you are overweight or underweight, as defined by one or more of the above tests, you really should do something about it for the sake of your health.
Focus on healthy eating, not diets
Weight loss isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry because it gives people sensible long term nutritional advice. It’s because it sucks people in with fake promises of easy weight loss and pseudo-scientific explanations of why the latest fad works. You don’t need to spend money on weight loss books or diet products. All the diet information you need is available free online from reputable organisations and government agencies, such as:
Getting active helps to use calories and benefits weight control in other ways too. See this post for more on how exercise helps you lose weight.
Keep a food diary
Keeping a record of what you eat can help to identify bad eating habits and where calories are coming from.
Gaining weight can be as challenging – or even more so – than losing weight. If a person is severely underweight, her body will have made adaptations to conserve energy. These include a diminished digestive system, which means that the person is unable to process large quantities of food. Weight gain, just like weight loss, takes time. Usually, if a person is very underweight, medical advice is needed.