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The average sumo wrestler in Japan has a body mass index of 56 (considered morbidly obese) and eats 5,000 calories a day.

But despite those inflated and alarming numbers, the “rikishis” (wrestlers) who practice this time-honored sport aren’t as unhealthy as one might expect. “They have low cholesterol, they have low insulin resistance and a low level of triglycerides or fatty acids,” said Jimmy Bell, a professor at Imperial College, London.

How can this be? Well, while sumo wrestlers may have blubbery outsides, they have muscular insides. The training and exercise keeps their hearts strong and pumping, relegating much of the fat formed in the wake of their gluttonous eating to the outsides of their bodies, where it serves as a protective layer rather than an internal roadblock.

There is a medical term floating around for this syndrome now known as “MONW” or metabolically obese normal weight, which means being a “skinny fat” person.  This means you are under lean and over fat or not enough muscle and too much fat (specifically belly fat). Shockingly, it is better to be fat and fit, than thin and out of shape.

Doctors say we are focusing too much on weight, but thin people can sometimes carry the most dangerous kind of fat – and not know it.

Obesity is a serious epidemic in the U.S., but the problem, doctors say, is that we are putting too much weight on weight. People with stellar metabolisms and magical genes may not look the part, but they can have the same medical issues as an obese person: type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and out-of-control blood sugar. It should be obvious, but a culture obsessed with weight doesn’t always remember that appearances of health can be skin deep.

“I see these people all the time,” says Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “On the outside they look incredibly healthy, but on the inside they’re a wreck.” You likely know someone who’s “skinny fat.” They never eat vegetables, love steak, and haven’t exercised since eighth grade gym class—and yet they’re still thin. Perhaps it’s you. But while some of us are envious of our svelte peers who don’t count calories or think twice about having a donut for breakfast, doctors say we shouldn’t be. Skinny fat is a real, and remarkably common, phenomenon—deadly even.

 “When you’re eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods, it causes visceral fat storage, and that can lead to all sorts of risk factors of being overweight,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. Sometimes a person may not have a lot of fat stored up overall, but what they do have is the most dangerous kind. So a person may not be heavy, but their organs could be coated with visceral fat, whose origins, researchers recently discovered, are genetically different from that of subcutaneous fat. This can cause metabolic syndrome—when someone has several conditions, like high blood pressure and high blood sugar, that put him or her at a high risk for heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.

The importance of fitness routines, lifestyle changes, and yearly physical examinations.

While the U.S. continues to battle the bulge, many of us are forgetting about the importance of also getting fit. The reaction to a 2012 study that showed that overweight people can be fit goes to the heart of our misunderstanding about fitness. “Everyone got really fixated on the people who were obese but not metabolically sick due to high fitness levels, but what was lost in the message was that we had plenty of people with a BMI below 25 but were unfit and at a high risk,” says Dr. Timothy Church, lead author of the study.

Weight is just one clue doctors look to for an indicator of poor health. But to see what’s really going on, they have to peek under the hood. “The scale is not a proxy for your health,” says Dr. Church, director of the Laboratory of Preventive Medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. More research on lifestyle changes is showing remarkable impacts on chronic disease. A 2013 study found that people at a high risk for developing type 2 diabetes could avoid the disease by developing healthier diets, exercising daily, managing stress, and quitting smoking.

It’s another reminder of the importance of the yearly exam, where doctors can screen for measures like high blood pressure and cholesterol and, if something looks off, they can also screen for C-reactive proteins (CRP), which are indicators for inflammation. High inflammation levels account for the majority of diseases that affect Americans.

 

Sources: time.com, thescienceofeating.com