What’s Actually Behind the Low Asian-American Obesity Rate?

Melissa Dahl, NBC News, October 17, 2013

At first glance, it seems like most Asian-Americans pretty much have this whole obesity thing under control, by the looks of new national statistics. An estimated 11 percent of adult Americans of Asian descent are considered obese. Compare that to the nation’s obesity average as a whole, which stands steady at about 35 percent.

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Why are Asian-Americans so much thinner? The answer may not be obvious, some experts say.

“It looks as if we don’t have a problem. But it’s a huge problem,” says Dr. Karen Kim, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. “There are huge differences where weight does not adequately reflect the realities of complications from being overweight. For Asians, you do not have to be overweight to get the complications for obesity.”

The NHANES uses body mass index, or BMI, to judge whether a person is overweight or obese. BMI is a standard way of calculating body fat using a person’s height and weight: A BMI above 25 is considered overweight, and a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese. According to this new data, just 10.8 percent of Asians in America are considered obese, a slim percentage when compared with the 33 percent of whites, 42 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of blacks with a BMI of 30 or higher.

But studies have suggested that BMI is a poor indicator of the consequences of obesity in Asians, many of whom show the health risks that come along with obesity—things like metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—at a much lower BMI.

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One example: Asian-Americans are at increased risk for diabetes at a BMI of 24, according to the American Diabetes Association. And, Kim says, the risk for cardiovascular disease, another illness normally associated with being overweight or obese, can start in normal-weight Asians who have a BMI of just 19 or 20.

Basically, it’s that concept of being “skinny fat”: Physiologically, people of Asian descent are either more likely to be “apple-shaped,” or their excess fat may be packed between and around the organs. Abdominal, or visceral, fat has been linked to obesity-related health risks like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and inflammatory diseases.

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Instead of relying on BMI, Kim and other health experts say that a more helpful benchmark for measuring obesity–in any population–may be to consider waist circumference and fat distribution, both of which are highly correlated with metabolic syndrome. 

The other big issue to note: Looking at “Asian-Americans” as a whole is so broad that it’s almost meaningless, says Kathy Ko Chin, president and CEO of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. “If it’s all clustered together as ‘Asian’—then that would really mask rates of obesity for specific populations.”

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Filipino adults are 70 percent more likely to be obese than the rest of the Asian-American population—but about one in 10 Vietnamese and Korean adults is underweight, according to a large 2008 report.

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  • IstvanIN

    “Asian” is such a bogus classification. There are Caucasian “Asians” of assorted ethnic groups, and there are Mongoloid “Asians” of varying ethnic groups. Of course using proper terminology subjects one to severe penalties.

    • Sick of it

      There are also Negro…err Australoid Asians.

    • Jefferson

      The vast majority of Asians in the U.S are of the Mongoloid type (Filipinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese). So the low obesity rate they are talking about is among the Mongoloid Asians.

      • Kenner

        Phiilipinos are Malay, darker and with a touch of abo to them, as are Indonesians–not at all like north-east asians. Malays are the ‘mexicans’ of SE Asia…It’s why the overseas Chinese out-perform them.

        • Jefferson

          Under the 3 racial classification system, Malays fall in the Mongoloid category.

    • Defiant White

      Caucasian-Asian? Uhh, no, there are not. There are mixed-breed mutts, but when you mix a white person and an ASIAN, you get a slightly less slanted-eye ASIAN . . . but still an ASIAN. Just like white + black = black.

      • IstvanIN

        Indians, as much as you may not like it, are a Caucasoid people.

        • Kenner

          I don’t like it…

  • Spartacus

    I thought race was just a “social construct”…

    • Kenner

      There are T-shirts that say, ‘Social Construct’ is a Social Construct…

      • Brian

        Society is a racial construct.

  • Ronald

    Apparently, these taxpayer funded Government university “studies” are designed to prove that “everyone” needs taxpayer funded Government “help”, whether or not that “help” makes sense or not. For example, it has been noted that people of Asian decent may be suffering from “skinny fat”.

    Food fads and medical quackery have been part of the American culture ever since before the nation was founded. Those fads and quackery have not caused much damage to the overall population because most have been short lived. Now that Government has gotten in on the act, though, no one knows how much damage may be done.

    Ronald

  • Defiant White

    It’s the Chinese food. You eat it and you’re hungry again. Doesn’t stick with you (or on them).

    • Jefferson

      Mexicans have one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, which is not surprising because Mexican food is way less healthy than Chinese food.

      • Brian

        They now have _the highest_ rate. Congrats, Mexico– you’re #1.

      • Jack Burton

        It’s not just about race per se, it’s about body type. Mexicans and other Mongoloids tend to be more endomorphic.

    • Spartacus

      You know the problem with Chinese food, right ?

      • Kenner

        Arf! Arf!!

      • Garrett Brown

        Chickey flied lice????!!!

    • Kenner

      It’s the diabetes-friendly white rice…it’s like chugging sugar. Presto, it’s gone.

  • IKantunderstand

    And we Americans should be concerned why? I don’t care about “Asians”. And, frankly, I don’t care how they are defined. Frankly, if they would have stayed in their countries of origin, this would NOT have been our problem. Why are we Americans having to deal with this? Isn’t our supposed collective White guilt over racism, colonialism, imperialism, enough to deal with? Now, we are responsible for the collective obesity rates of all races and different ethnic and religious backgrounds who happen to have colonized our country? Are you freaking kidding me?

    • Nathanwartooth

      It’s just interesting to me because of the differences in how the body deals with fat between the races.

      • GeneticsareDestiny

        Yeah, I think it’s interesting too. It’s also yet more proof that there are serious and real genetic differences between different races.

      • Magician

        Lol

    • Ella

      There are two types of narcissists today.

      1. The obvious one is the conceited/ materialistic, arrogant and the hyper-competitive. 2. The less recognized are martyrs who see themselves as the center of ALL freakin problems today of the world. How arrogant can you really get to be the ONLY world’s source of problems !!!! “I’m at fault for everything!” You now have an audience of 6.8 billion to suffer in front of, and there is no real relief from these continuous, emotional pains.

  • borogirl54

    I know in my family, most of my female relatives are apple shaped but they are of normal weight. I am probably the only one who is pear shaped. I inherited the body type of my late Portuguese grandmother.

    • Kenner

      Honey, you is a woman. Pear is the right shape. Apple isn’t healthy for either gender.

      • Garrett Brown

        She a pendent PortOguese woman! And she don’t need no man!

    • Chris Granzow XI

      Is that common for Portuguese women? I have some Portuguese friends (2nd generation immigrants) who all have nice wide hips.

      • Magician

        I remember a Portuguese girl named Chloe when I was in highschool and all boys loved looking at her butt. She knew that but there was nothing she could do even if she did not like that

  • IstvanIN

    At home I cook in either bacon fat or olive oil, and I bet dollars to donuts that bacon fat is healthier than soybean oil.

    • ms_anthro

      It is. Coconut oil is also excellent, as are grass-fed butter (Kerrygold is my favorite) and grass-fed ghee. Avocado oil has a delightful flavor but is a bit expensive. Sesame oil is wonderful for stir-frying but has a very high omega-6 content, so i use it sparingly.

      • Kenner

        ‘Kerrygold’? Do you shop at Trader Joe’s? I’m not an olive oil afficianado, but i blundered onto ‘California Estate Olive Oil’ and it’s pure silk–flavor and texture.

        • ms_anthro

          Kerrygold is Irish butter, from pastured grass-fed cows. This matters because the cows’ diet directly affects the nutritional value of their milk and meat. (This is why you want eggs and meat from cage-free chickens too.) I get it at Whole Foods but have seen it at most grocery stores. It’s probably available at Trader Joe’s.

          Coconut oil is my favorite fat to eat and cook with. I put about a tablespoon of it with a bit of honey in my coffee or tea every morning. It’s filling, provides a lot of energy, and has done wonders for my hair and skin.

          • Brian

            What’s the scoop on lard, as opposed to veg. shortening? I know it got a bad reputation but isn’t that being re-examined now? I only use it for making biscuits but I do eat a fair number.

          • ms_anthro

            Lard is completely superior to vegetable shortening in every way. Lard made from grass-fed ruminants is best, but grass-fed chicken lard is fine too. You can buy the good stuff online or from health food stores, or just make your own from rendered fat (lots of recipes online). Bacon grease can also be saved and refrigerated for cooking–I use it in many dishes for added flavor and healthy saturated fat.

            Vegetable shortening is hydrogenated, shelf-stabilized, and full of trans fats, which the body has trouble digesting or metabolizing for energy. Canola and corn oil aren’t much better. When in doubt, avoid oils made from corn, seeds (canola, cotton, sunflower), and legumes (soy, peanuts). Saturated fats from healthy well-fed animals and eggs (and whole fat dairy, if lactose doesn’t cause inflammation in your body–it does to mine) are far healthier than the processed, oxidized, and especially hydrogenated vegetable oils used in almost every packaged and restaurant food today.

            Note: this flies in the face of conventional grain-subsidized food pyramid “wisdom,” so expect raised eyebrows and lots of arguing and even defensive name-calling when you start eating plenty of bacon, fatty fish and meats, olives, avocados, eggs, and other high fat, low carb foods while shunning grains and legumes. The complaints fade over time as the weight magically melts away and stays off easily.

            Basically, eat fat to stay thin. That means minimal sugar (including limited fruit), minimal nuts and seeds, minimal dairy, no legumes, few if any starchy tubers, plenty of quality meat from healthy animals, a variety of fresh vegetables, and lots and lots of good natural fat from known sources. You get ample calcium from greens, but you can also make bone broths for the benefits of collagen, gelatin, and vital minerals.

          • Brian

            Thanks, that is a wealth of information. I love olives and yogurt. I only use butter, olive oil and lard for fats in cooking. My nemeses are soda and bread– trying to cut back on those.

          • ms_anthro

            Good luck to you. Just by cutting out refined sugar (as is found in soda and most processed foods–read the labels) and all grains and legumes, most people would see a huge improvement in their health and overall wellbeing.

    • We also avoid polyunsaturated fats. Animal fats are saturated. Olive oil tends to be monounsaturated. The problem with polyunsaturates is that they readily form free-radicals and these are carcinogenic. The worst case of industrial poisoning in history was in Spain, when some sleazy operators sold industrial-grade rapeseed oil as olive oil. Apparently it tasted OK, but the victims’ own auto-immune systems tore them up inside trying to fight the runaway cancer. Thousands of people died. The rapeseed oil itself was massively unsaturated because this is a normal paint additive, and helps paint dry via polymerization of the hydrocarbons: it turns into a sort of plastic.

      • Brian

        Isn’t canola a form of industrial rapeseed?

      • texasoysterman

        The Spainish Government and medical establishment still stands behind the story that the poisoning was caused by adulterated cooking oil. However, according to the article, the more likely cause was organo-phosphate pesticide residue on tomatoes.

        http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/aug/25/research.highereducation

  • Chris Granzow XI

    I’ve noticed asian girls get the physical qualities of being “thick” at a much lower threshold. What’s considered “thick” for asian women, is normal for other women.

    • Kenner

      E Asian women tend to have smaller breasts and buttocks; less of a sexual signal. Blacks often display a comical exaggeration of both. Whites: in the middle, as always. We are the ‘Goldilocks’ race…

      • Chris Granzow XI

        On the butt thing yea; but for breasts, I think we have them firmly beat in that area (research shows too).

  • Magician

    Let me guess, some guys here will say, “Asian women always throw themselves at any white men!”

  • Chris Granzow XI

    Actually that’s a common misconception. The only reason I know otherwise is from experience. My ex from a couple years back had a large bust (around f-cup) but had very skinny arms, legs and stomach. When it comes to chest size with women, it mostly boils down to genetics. I agree though, I would rather have an average-looking woman with intelligence and respect, than these dumb sex and the city wannabe types.

    • Magician

      Then how do you explain those Hollywood actresses? Is Hollywood looking specifically for flat chested women or something?

      • Chris Granzow XI

        Idk, they probably are. The mainstream (tv and modeling) is renowned for not choosing “curvy” women.

  • wangkon936

    It’s all the dogs and cats we eat, duh! Very lean meats ya know!

    I am j/k btw… if you didn’t notice.