What your body fat really looks like

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

These MRI scans may well be the two most powerful motivations for heart patients to step away from the Tim Hortons maple dips that I have ever personally witnessed. 

They are from a National Geographic feature all about body fat (“Why Are We So Fat?”  Newman, Cathy, National Geographic, 00279358, August 2004, Vol. 206, Issue 2).  The woman on the left is 5’6″ tall, weighs 250 pounds, and has a Body Mass Index (BMI)* of 40.3 (thus qualifying for a morbidly obese designation) while the other woman is 5’5″ tall, weighs 120 pounds, and has a BMI of 20 (a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9).

Please note how the ankles of the woman on the left are now tortuously  deformed due to the equivalent weight of one entire extra person she’s been carrying around.

According to this National Geographic piece:

The First Law of Fat says that anything you eat beyond your immediate need for energy, from avocados to ziti, converts to fat. ‘A calorie is a calorie is a calorie,’ says Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, whether it comes from fat, protein, or carbohydrate.

The Second Law of Fat says that the line between being in and out of energy balance is slight. Suppose you consume a mere 5% over a 2,000-calorie-a-day average. ‘That’s just 100 calories; it’s a glass of apple juice,’ says Rudolph Leibel, head of molecular genetics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. ‘But those few extra calories can mean a huge weight gain.’

“Since one pound of body weight is roughly equivalent to 3,500 calories, that glass of juice adds up to an extra 10 pounds (five kilograms) over a year. Alternatively, you’d gain 10 pounds if, due to a more sedentary lifestyle – driving instead of walking, taking the escalator instead of the stairs – you started burning 100 fewer calories a day.

“Our bodies are good at converting food into fat and then hanging on to it. This trait may have helped our ancestors survive when calories were few and far between.

“But fast-forward to the 21st century, when calorie supply isn’t a problem, and genes that favor gaining weight have outlived their usefulness. Evolution betrays us. We store fat for the famine that never comes.

And where that body fat lives on our bodies can make a difference to fat’s role as a serious heart disease risk factor:

  • Subcutaneous fat is the fat you can feel if you pinch some skin and tissue around your middle.
  • Belly fat (visceral fat) accumulates in your abdomen in the spaces between your organs. This belly or visceral fat surrounding major organs can be a serious health issue. Too much belly fat puts you at greater risk of heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes compared to excess subcutaneous fat.

* Here’s how to figure out your own Body Mass Index (BMI).

  This article was on the Heart Sisters Top 10 Most Popular Posts list for 2012 (#7).

See also:

19 thoughts on “What your body fat really looks like

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  2. This image is a real eye opener.

    I am losing weight at the moment and so far I have gone from 270lb to 220lb a loss of 50lb. Health wise I can feel the difference already, I’m more active and feel healthier than I have for years.

    One thing that has really stood out for me are the woman’s ankles. I was always going over my ankles and hurting myself looking at this I can see why it was happening. I have ended up flat on my face so often that it’s scary, I have been unable to walk and suffered terrible pain.

    I’m definitely on the right track and I hope I’ve not done too much permanent damage.


    1. Congratulations Debbie – 50 pounds gone! Awesome. I too was struck by the visuals of this woman’s ankles. It makes sense when you think about it. You are indeed on the right track – best of luck to you on this journey! 🙂


  3. When you eat less than you “burn”, your body turns fats back into energy. But our bodies try to protect the fat, since it is supposed to be saved for lean times, so it can be difficult to lose fats. But keep at it, dedication will win. Just burn more than you eat… either exercise a lot more or exercise a little more and eat less.-


  4. I love all the information offered… Only thing is for eating healthy, what about people who drink more water than most ,,,, but retain most of what they drink… And people who don’t like Tea of any kind or coffee or wine etc. Eating healthy is all good but you never get full off of eating healthy foods and i don’t have time to eat 5 meals per day so what about someone like me… Don’t like salad or greens, or brussel sprouts, or raw vegetables and the only fruit i like is grapes and strawberries and bananas… Can’t stand fish of any kind and not much of a meat eater so where does that leave someone like me?


    1. Well, Gina I’d say where this leaves someone like you is this place: take your list of best-loved foods (grapes, strawberries and bananas) and start researching how you can add to that limited list without resorting to UNhealthy foods. Do your homework. Learn new stuff.


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  6. Oh my! I will never get this image of me out of my head…this is a great motivator…depressing, but a great motivator.


  7. I had never thought of calories in the way that you explained it. Giving the example of apple juice made the point very clear. Each time that I read your blog I learn something new. Thank you once again.


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