An unusually healthy metabolic profile may represent one-third of obese adults, but what sets them apart? Brought to the limelight in the New York Times, this aforementioned population is referred to as the "metabolically healthy obese."

Let's face it - healthy and obese are not typically synonymous with one another. However, current research may change your mind.

The bottom line may not only be healthy, but actually quite athletic. Case in point: have you ever seen an obese runner blast past a stick-skinny competitor? It simply goes against our grain of thought, but may be representative of this healthy, large-framed population sector.

Cell Defects

A study in the journal Diabetologia, found damaged mitochondria in heavier-framed individuals with metabolic disease. This is important to note because mitochondria are the energy converters in our cells.

Most interesting, there is a difference in functionality of fat cells between the "healthy obese" and the "obese" communities.

Fat cells in the unhealthy sector are maxed out, like a balloon unable to take any further pressure without popping. However, the healthy sector simply produces more fat cells, helping to store the fat as it accumulates (picture many small balloons, versus one super-sized).

These cell defects result in a functioning but rusty human machine - an ideal set-up for metabolic syndrome.

What Is Metabolic Syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is an unhealthy series of game-changing events going on simultaneously within the body. The National Institutes of Health describes six conditions as metabolic risk factors: a large waistline (apple-shaped body), high triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and elevated blood sugars.

Once metabolic syndrome is underway, without serious lifestyle changes, disease approaches like a freight train.

Inflammation and Fatty Organs

With no place left to go, fat in the unhealthy population is stored in unlikely places such as bodily organs . Fatty liver disease is a serious complication in this subset of individuals - a complication that may be the final blow before a diabetes diagnosis.

Inflammation is another hallmark characteristic of the "unhealthy obese," a characteristic not seen in their "healthy obese" counterparts.

According to the New York Times: “The group that doesn’t gain fat in the liver as they get obese seems to avoid inflammation and maintain their metabolic health,” said Dr. Jussi Naukkarinen, a research scientist specializing in internal medicine at the University of Helsinki. “There is a complete difference in how they react to obesity.”

Healthy Fat Stores

Speaking of healthy fat stores, where in the body is this non-disease promoting fat stored? Remember, the underlying problems aren't due to the mere existence of fat; the biggest differentiating factor in health turns out to be its location. Study results have found that fat storage in the "healthy obese" is located directly beneath the skin in their subcutaneous fat layer.

A Ticking Time Bomb

The question remains - will the "healthy obese" convert to a non-healthy state over time? It's thought that perhaps if they are studied for a prolonged period, this group may be stripped of their "metabolically healthy obese" profiles, joining the ranks of the "obese."

Perhaps this "healthy obese" subset eats healthfully and exercises, while the unhealthy obese don't, or perhaps the inflammatory process is to blame, or genetic predispositions. After all, there are thin individuals who are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

One thing is for certain, according to Dr. Naukkarinen: "healthy obese" people are "in the minority." Controlling variables through a healthy lifestyle can only serve to improve our odds of disease avoidance.

To learn more about this topic:
Video: Obesity
An Average American Male Frame Equates To 'Almost Obese'