Are ripped bodybuilders healthy?

We use the label “healthy” a lot. So much so that marketers in the nutrition, fitness and weight loss industries use it to describe almost everything. Whether a new “healthy” granola bar (which in reality contains about 30 grams of sugar) or a magic weight loss supplement, everything is justified by slapping a “healthy” label on it.

One thing these marketers have done well is transform the body image that’s associated with healthy. If you’re carrying even a little extra weight, you have some work to do. No six pack abs? Spend some more time in the gym. Weight loss has become something of a panacea. Everything will be better if we loss a few pounds.

The unfortunate part of the story is that weight is a lousy predictor of health. In fact, a 2013 study found that being overweight (but not obese) was associated with lower all-cause mortality compared to “normal weight” individuals. A fair number of so-called “normal weight” people also have metabolic syndrome, or increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. And those individuals who seem to epitomize health, such as bodybuilders or IRONMAN triathletes, put their bodies under extreme amounts of stress, often throwing important hormones out of whack.

This is why I really like this infographic from Precision Nutrition. Sections of it are below but click on the link to access the full version. It looks at men and women in different percent body fat categories and lists the pros, cons, tradeoffs, and what’s required to get there.

If you take away one thing, remember this. Like many things, weight or body fat percentage follow a bell curve. The largest benefits are in the middle, and most of the risks are at the extremes, whether high or low.

So the next time you see a photo-shopped model on the cover of a fitness magazine, consider the huge health tradeoffs you’d have to make to try to get there.





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