You Can Be Big Boned, But it’s Probably Not Why You’re Overweight

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By Alex Haley

Updated on

fact checked

Is the reason why you are overweight due to your “big bones”? It could be – but it also could be due to several other reasons.

You Can Be Big Boned, But it's Probably Not Why You're Overweight

We have all heard it. “I’m not fat, I’m big boned”.

The food industry has done a great job convincing people that being big boned or overweight is inherited or something you can’t control. The truth is, there are many factors that contribute to your weight and metabolism, and the good news is that you have control over some of it!

You can’t control your genetics, but you do have control over lifestyle, diet and exercise.

And while genetics does play a role in how you might store fat, there isn’t a genetic test to determine if you are “big boned”.

A study from the University of New South Wales Australia looked at over 200 men and women with Body Mass Indices ranging from 18-49. They found that many people labeled themselves as being big boned according to their BMI, but that if they took a look at the bones of the skeletons, they were not statistically larger than anyone else’s.

It is also important to note that being overweight does not necessarily mean you are “big boned”. Often times people who are overweight have metabolisms that don’t work properly or simply have an unhealthy lifestyle.

So what contributes to weight gain? Genetics, hormones, exercise, metabolism and diet are all factors that can contribute to weight gain or loss. While genetics plays a role in how you might store fat on your body, it’s not the only factor of obesity.

Is it just about calories in and calories out?

To validate a higher number on the scale, people like to claim, “I’m not overweight; I’m just big-boned!” However, less than 20% of women actually have bigger-than-average body frames, according to studies.

The genuine big bone people are usually tall and have greater bone density and muscularity than the majority of women—think Venus Williams, for example.

Dr. Stephen Cook, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, say that “if you’re not muscular or tall, chances are you don’t have big bones.”

At the end of the day, it seems like your bones can’t explain away all that extra weight you’re carrying. Furthermore, frame size usually accounts for just a few pounds of weight variation, typically 10 pounds. So what’s really going on?

There are several reasons that people might hold onto more body fat than is necessary for survival, but none of them have to do with bone size or muscle mass.

You need energy for every action your body carries out. When you consume food, your body converts the energy stored in that food into a form it can use to carry out bodily functions.

One pound of fat contains about 3,500 calories of potential energy. If you are not expending these calories through exercise or other physical activities, then they will accumulate in your fat cells.

But what about your metabolism?

The reason it’s so hard for many people to lose weight is because their basal metabolic rate (BMR) is slow—and the number of calories they burn daily at rest is just too low, says Dr. Luigi Gratton, professor of endocrinology and obesity research at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

This happens when you’re not active enough throughout the day—you don’t burn as many calories as your body needs during resting periods. (And it can happen even if you work out.)

A slow BMR is also hereditary—meaning that if your parents are naturally thin or have a hard time building muscle or losing weight, you may inherit that trait.

You can get your metabolism moving by eating more—but the wrong kinds of foods. Don’t go for bags of chips or candy bars; instead, focus on eating lean protein, whole grains and fresh produce in order to keep your energy up throughout the day without wrecking your diet.

You have to take in fewer calories than you burn off

That’s the bottom line. You can always look at your bone size or muscle mass to give yourself a pat on the back for being genetically blessed—but it won’t do much to help you lose weight if you’re not focusing on eating right and exercising.

Size is genetically predetermined and can’t be changed by diet or exercise, true or false?

False. Most people don’t realize it, but your body fat percentage is determined by both your skeletal structure and your lifestyle.

About 20 percent of women have either pear or apple shapes and have belly fat, while the remaining 60 percent fall into the category of pears with smaller hips and apples with wider waistlines, according to Dr. Rena Wing, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

A combination of these shapes can mean you have a large bone structure genetically—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bound to be overweight, she says.

The reason so many people are overweight today is because our diets are high in fat and sugar—two things the body uses for quick energy, explains Dr. Gratton.

Our bodies are designed to use this quick energy, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best type of fuel for our bodies, he says.

Exercise is also crucial in lowering fat levels—and often has little to do with how much you eat. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, says that exercise is extremely important for losing weight.

“If you want to lose 10 pounds, you have to burn 3,500 calories more than you take in,” he says.

He points out that most people are surprised by how much they are actually burning every day without realizing it—for example, fidgeting or tapping your foot while taking a test, playing with your hair or tapping your fingers on the table.

Finally, you have to burn off more calories than you take in.

Even though it’s not guaranteed that people with larger bone structures will be overweight, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can do to get their body fat percentage down.

The best way for anyone to lose weight is to drink plenty of water—it keeps you hydrated and makes you feel fuller.

Cutting down on carbohydrates also helps, as do low-fat dairy products like yogurt, which help keep your metabolism burning at a steady rate, says Dr. Gratton.

Of course, everyone needs proteins—and some produce has more calories than others. But in general, following a nutritious diet filled with fruits and vegetables is the best way to get rid of fat—no matter what size you are.

“If you want to lose weight, eat more protein,” Dr. Gratton says.

A high BMI may be due to muscle mass rather than fat,

False. A high BMI is most likely due to fat rather than muscle mass, says Dr. Gratton.

Muscles, organs and even bones can be broken down into components that would give your weight a higher score on the BMI chart—but it’s unlikely all of this will add up to more than 20 percent of your total weight, he says.

What’s more likely is that the majority of your extra weight comes from fat—especially if you’re carrying a lot of it around your waistline or on your hips, buttocks and thighs.

It’s also important to remember that muscle weighs more than fat—so if you’re working out regularly but not seeing the number on the scale go down, it could be because you’re building muscle.

Best way to reduce your weight? Increase muscle mass, not fat loss.

Weight loss really depends on how much fat vs muscle mass (lean body mass) you have, and even lean people can be overweight due to their increased bone structure; thus an individual with a normal body composition index may be considered overweight within the medical community.

From a nutrition perspective, it’s vitally important to spread your caloric intake throughout the day and not over-indulge in a short period of time.

It’s also wise to drink plenty of water, even if you think you already are, as most of us are chronically dehydrated as a result of our thirst mechanism being blunted from exposure to multiple environmental toxins, some prescription drugs and even foods.

In addition, eating the right kind of carbs is also paramount for maintaining stable blood sugar levels, which will affect your mood and ability to think clearly.

If you’re wondering how much protein you need on a daily basis, Dr. Gratton suggests aiming for 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day, or at least 100 grams of lean protein per day.

Another great way to avoid sugar is to cut down on carbohydrates in your diet—especially simple carbs that are found in foods like white bread and rice,” Dr. Gratton says.

Your weight may not be what it seems to be. You might think you’re overweight because of your larger-than-average body frame, but that’s probably not the case. According to research, less than 20% of women actually have bigger-than-average body frames and those with a large bone structure usually account for just 10 pounds or so in difference on their scale.

So if you’re persuaded that being big boned is why you’re carrying extra weight, it might not be the only reason. Chances are there’s something else going on.

If are are convinces that your genes are responsible for your obesity then trying to lose genetic fat is not that difficult.

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about the author

Alex Haley is a specialist in bio-information and operations. Alex has an interest in the field of genetics, with a focus on genome sequencing. When not working, Alex enjoys reading about scientific developments that may be relevant to her work or studies. When she's at home, she spends time with her family and friends. She also likes to read books about science fiction and fantasy worlds where anything is possible!