How fat is considered obese

Obesity : Dickschiff Germany

"Every second adult in Germany is overweight" reported the Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden on Wednesday. The basis of the statement was the microcensus, a representative survey of one percent of the German population. It was also found that the number of overweight people had risen from 48 percent (1999) to 52 percent (2013). As expected, the announcement received wide media coverage. If Germany were a steamer, it would probably be a thick ship filled with lush bodies just before capsizing. But if you take a closer look, the statistics from Wiesbaden are not quite as gloomy as they appear at first glance.

Under, normal and overweight are determined using the body mass index (BMI). It is calculated by dividing your body weight (in kilograms) by your height (in meters squared). A BMI of 18.5 is considered underweight, the normal weight ranges from 18.5 to 25, and overweight from 25 to 30. With a BMI of 30 to 35 one speaks of slight obesity (obesity grade I), with a value of 35 to 40 of significant obesity (grade II). In common parlance, every BMI over 25 is often referred to as “overweight”, regardless of whether the person has a BMI of 26 (“real” overweight) or more than 40 (obesity grade III). The Federal Statistical Office does not differentiate either and draws a general limit of 25.

The weight of the Germans has hardly changed

In fact, the average BMI of Germans is practically constant. In 1999 it was 25.2. And thus on the dividing line between normal and overweight. In 2013 it was only marginally higher at 25.9. The proportion of those who are slightly overweight (BMI 25 to 30) has also remained almost the same, in 1999 it was 36.2 percent, in 2013 it was 36.7 percent. Only the percentage of obese in the population rose noticeably from 11.5 to 15.7. An increase that is still within limits. It may be related to the fact that life expectancy is increasing. Because over the years, most people put on a few pounds and maybe slip into the next higher BMI category.

There is no worrying trend among children entering school. For them, overweight and obesity are stagnating or even declining, as an evaluation of the school entrance examinations in the 16 federal states showed.

The question that remains is how the finding “every second person is overweight” should be interpreted. Many media quickly changed the neutral statement into a normative statement: Every second German is “too fat”. But this finding is doubtful because its basis, namely the division of the BMI, is dubious. It has been the subject of heated debates for years, and its validity has been called into question by numerous scientific studies. In spite of this, influential organizations such as the World Health Organization are sticking to it or are even considering tightening it, for example for Asia.

Fat on the waist: that's where the risk lies

The BMI is largely divided schematically into steps of five. From "25" you are overweight, from "30" you are obese. But this categorization ignores the large differences in physique as well as the increase in BMI over the course of life. Muscular and well-trained athletes, for example, can quickly become “overweight”, whereas a lean person who does not move around has a normal weight. A much more precise measure for estimating the risk of heart disease, for example, is the waist-to-hip ratio. It takes into account an unhealthy fat distribution in the abdominal area (apple shape) and one that is beneficial to health in the hip area (pear shape).

More serious, however, are two other facts. From surveys with millions of participants it is now known that the risk of death is lowest in an area around a BMI of 25. Some studies even come to the conclusion that people who are slightly overweight have the best chance of survival and therefore the highest life expectancy.

People who are slightly overweight live the longest

With their collective BMI of 25, the Germans have “chosen” the best value for their health - only 26 might be even better. A substantial increase in health risks is only apparent from a BMI of 30. People with massive obesity often have “big” health problems as well.

The obesity paradox is also scientifically proven. Doctors use this to describe the puzzling fact that being fat increases the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease or diabetes, such as diabetes. On the other hand, overweight people or obese people with a chronic illness, such as narrowed coronary arteries or kidney disease, often have better chances of survival than thin people. As several studies on heart patients have shown, overweight and even obese people (with the exception of super fat people) have a survival advantage over people of normal weight.

From these results, health professionals have concluded that increasing physical fitness may be more important for survival than just staring at the pounds. After all, there are far more factors than just BMI that play a role in physical wellbeing. Age, gender, genetic makeup, social status and health behavior are likely to be more important than the weight itself in most cases.

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