I slid off the DEXA SCAN machine and into my worst fears. It said I was obese.
At the end of January, I’d reached my highest weight. I’ve been “skinny fat” all my life, but it was time to accept my big, fat reality.
31% total body fat.* More than 50 pounds of fat.
Unlike traditional BMI and body fat measures, DEXA SCAN uses a full-body scanner to provide an accurate measure of fat and lean mass throughout your body.
Before this moment, I kept my head in the sand and just kept running. 2021 was a rough year where I gained a few pounds, but I’ve tracked 6,968 running miles since 2014 (excluding biking, spinning, yoga, etc). I was always among the leaders on the Army physical fitness test, priding myself in beating the young twenty-somethings. Just last month, I finished first on the two-mile run.
Does that sound unhealthy? (Aside from those who think all of those miles are crazy.)
But the miles can no longer mask my poor overall health. A lifetime of sodas and a SEEfood diet have caught up to me.
The warning signs were there. In 2021, I had COVID twice followed by a diagnosis of low vitamin B, low vitamin D, a non-alcoholic fatty liver (who says you need booze for a good time?), and possible Celiac Disease. Fortunately, I was negative for Celiac.
While researching these issues and analyzing my lab results, I started to take stock of my energy. Do you know it’s not normal to struggle out of bed EVERY day because you’re so exhausted?
The Army taught me if I could get upright and vertical in the morning I could press on. (G.I. Joe also said, “knowing is half the battle.” Clearly, I didn’t know.)
I’d been chronically tired for years. Rest and sleep made little difference. When I taught at a high school, I struggled to keep my eyes open on the last few minutes of my drive home in the late afternoon before collapsing onto my couch and ending the day in a Netflix daze.
I spent years rationalizing fatigue due to being too stressed, too busy, too active, and too lazy. I’m really good at rationalizing.
Chris Sparks says “All improvement begins with awareness.” Looking at the right numbers, I’m acutely and keenly aware. My journey is just getting started.
While this is my story, the U.S. health system does a poor job of describing “good health.” As our clothing sizes stretch (just try ordering your size from an Asian maker on Amazon), our health standards and social norms are similarly dangerously generous.
But who are the experts we should be listening to?
Honestly, I have no idea. There’s too much anecdotal advice, conflicting research, and conventional knowledge that is plain wrong.
Should I have listened to my mom who’s been swearing by B vitamin for years? I didn’t even know what vitamin D was until Joe Rogan started talking about it in the early days of COVID. Yet, he’s the first to admit he’s no medical expert. Still, I figured by running in the sunlight, well beyond the average American, I would have no Vitamin D worries. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
I could’ve picked up on these issues years earlier if I paid closer attention to my lab results or knew what they meant. No doctor paid much attention to my results or complaints of fatigue, either, except one who prescribed a muscle relaxer as a permanent sleep solution (yeah, that’s gonna be a no for me, dawg). Even more frustrating, the vitamin B and D deficiencies were easily identifiable through a simple blood draw.
What is normal? I didn’t know. I’m still not sure I do now. When the doctors are asking how you feel, you’re comparing your present state with your normalized baseline. How helpful is that? Maybe I should’ve countered back by asking how am I supposed to feel?
These are a few warning signs I’ll keep in mind moving forward. If I’m feeling constantly fatigued, have dull or erratic emotions, or further expand my waistline, I will investigate further.
Rather than relying upon a particular expert, start with objective metrics.
For example, weight without additional qualifiers is a poor indicator of health. A DEXA SCAN is one way. Regular low-tech tape measurements are 1000% better than relying solely on weight. We need to recognize nuance, too, as traditional BMI metrics are generous to those who are “skinny fat” and sometimes absurd for individuals with muscle and low body fat.
Whatever metrics you choose, be consistent because different methods yield different results. For tracking changes, measure apples to apples.
I’d recommend a broader spectrum lab test to get an objective measure of health beyond routine blood work. Find out about your vitamin and hormone levels. My tests were mostly performed with doctor’s orders at Quest Labs which is the lowest cost, but probably the slowest method. There are other options available for a cost. In The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferris cites the SpectraCell Micronutrient Test that helped him identify a deficiency of Selenium. Other tests available include InsideTracker and WellnessFX. (Disclosure: I have not tried these tests, although I’m intrigued.)
Moving forward, I’m done with my big, fat reality. I’ll make mistakes, but they won’t be worn around my belly.
(I will be sharing my early results in another post, but I’m off to a strong start for the rest of my life.)
Cover Photo by Samuel Ramos.
*For males, obesity is defined as > 30% body fat and healthy is < 25%. The levels are higher for females. There are also some differences between your body mass index (BMI) and body fat. Be aware of the what and how that you’re measuring.