7 Big Myths About Body Fat

Convinced that middle-age spread is inevitable or that thin people can't get diabetes? Think again

By Linda Melone
Originally Posted On October 22, 2013

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After age 50, maintaining a healthy weight can be even more challenging than it was in earlier years. Changes in metabolism, hormonal fluctuations, lower activity levels and other issues can all contribute to an expanded waistline, which, aside from aesthetic concerns, can lead to conditions like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

But before taking action, it's important to know how our weight actually affects us and what we can really do about it. Too many of us in midlife and beyond may believe some myths about fat and weight that researchers have long since debunked. To start on a path to better health, first move past these misconceptions:

1. If you stop exercising, your muscle turns into fat. People who lifted weights in their 20s and 30s often worry that their hard-earned muscle will turn to flab as they age, but that's simply not physiologically possible. "There is no scientific process in our body that turns muscle into fat," says Dr. J. Shah, a bariatric physician and medical director of Amari Medical in Scarsdale, N.Y.

What, then, accounts for the sometimes flabbier appearance of our arms as we age? In large part, it's sarcopenia, the gradual, natural loss of muscle mass and strength that typically begins in our 40s and affects nearly everyone by the time we reach our 60s. Our natural loss of skin elasticity as we age also contributes to the effect.

So don't cease your workouts because you fear you're just building up future fat; a decline in muscle mass is inevitable, but the benefits of exercise are especially valuable as we age to maintain overall health and ward off frailty by keeping bones strong.
 
6. Skinny people don't get diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can affect anyone, regardless of weight. (In fact, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that people with normal weight who are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes face a mortality risk twice as high as overweight people with diabetes.)

"Just because a person appears thin does not mean she is devoid of body fat, which contributes to the development of diabetes," Sacheck says. Many individuals can be "skinny fat," which means they carry a relatively high percentage of body fat for their body size. "Diabetes progresses from the inability to control blood sugar," she says, "which can result from diets high in sugar and also from a lack of exercise." Those are risks we all face.
 
7. Weight is the most important risk factor for health. Smoking, heredity, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and other issues also increase our risk of early mortality and heart disease. As much as having a normal weight with those risk factors is potentially dangerous, carrying extra pounds with an otherwise healthy lifestyle may not be as bad as it seems. "Just as people can be 'skinny fat,' some individuals can be 'fit and fat,'" Sacheck says.

A person with excess body fat who exercises and eats well may have a high percentage of healthy, lean muscle, which contributes to decreased inflammation and reduces the risk of many diseases typically brought on by lifestyle factors, such as diabetes and heart disease.