Most people want to lose weight and neglect the benefit of focusing on losing body fat. Let’s talk about a few good reasons to focus on our body fat percentage as opposed to body weight, or the number we see on the weight scale.
1. Most of us embarking upon a weight loss adventure incorporate aerobic activity and resistance training into their exercise regimen. But when we do this we must remember an important fact about muscle and fat. One pound of muscle and one pound of fat weigh the same, but the volume (or size) of each is significantly different.
Without a change in diet, studies have shown that changes in physical activity involving aerobic (i.e., cardio) exercise results on average in more fat loss than resistance exercise alone. However, when aerobic exercise is combined with resistance training, there is fat loss being accompanied by a concurrent increase in fat-free mass (i.e., lean muscle). An increase in lean muscle will yield slower weight loss results, but a potentially significant reduction of body fat and physical inches.
2. By definition, body fat percentage is the ratio of fat to lean mass within the body. It is typically calculated using weight, height, and waist circumference measurements. In addition to these measurements, there are a few body fat equations that also incorporate the circumference of the wrist, forearm, and hips. A 2012 National Institute of Health (NIH) study concluded, body fat percentage “plays a more important role in distinguishing between healthy and obese individuals, as it has a greater ability to differentiate between lean mass and fat mass compared to body mass index.”
The American Council on Exercise recommends the following as acceptable body fat percentages for men and women.
|General Body-fat Percentage Categories|
|Classification||Women (% fat)||Men (% fat)|
|Obese||32% and higher||25% and higher|
Most experts agree that a 1% loss of body fat per month is a generally safe and practical expectation.
3. Body mass index is another way to determine the healthiness of a person’s weight. BMI is calculated using an individual’s height and weight. The National Institute of Health has an easy online tool to calculate BMI. Several studies have linked BMI to various risk factors for diseases associated with overweight or obese patients. In general, higher BMIs correlate to unhealthy risk factors such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, certain cancers, and other illnesses.
Here is a detailed NIH chart that uses an individual’s height (inches) and weight (pounds) to determine BMI. Acceptable BMI limits are underweight (<18.5), healthy (18.6 to 24.9), overweight (> or =25), and obesity (> or =30).
In summary, I encourage you to calculate your body fat percentage and BMI numbers. As you know, both of these numbers are calculated using your body weight and other body measurements. Use these numbers to set new fitness goals!
Most people equate eating fat to gaining weight and/or increasing the amount of fat within the body. This isn’t necessarily true. Not all fats are bad and believe it or not we NEED fats in our diets (a.k.a., essential fatty acids – Omega -3 and Omega -6). It is recommended that 20-35% of an adult’s daily diet intake is fats (Dietary Guidelines for America, American Heart Association, USDA). Wait! Before you bust out the ice cream and brownies, let me break it down.
Fats are broken into good (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) and bad (saturated and trans) fats. Out of the 25-35% daily fat intake, 1% is transfat, 7-10% is saturated fat, and the remaining 15-25% is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
So, how does this relate to gaining weight or adding fat mass to our bodies?
When we don’t eat enough fat, our energy may plummet and we may become vitamin deficient. [Note: fats help body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.] We are more likely to not be active and potentially make unhealthy food choices when we feel tired, lethargic, and low in energy. And we sometimes lean upon quick and easy (UNHEALTHY) food choices because they are convenient and don’t require a lot of energy to prepare. And this my friends, is a recipe for gaining weight.
Stick with eating good fats such as fish, nuts, seeds, and oils from plants. For example, salmon, trout, avocados, olives, walnuts and liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower.
Eating our recommended daily fat intake is good, but we must be careful about the proportions of good and bad fats. If our bad fats are high and good fats are low, then we have a higher risk of weight gain, higher cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular disease. We must limit saturated (e.g., butter, solid shortening, animal fat, coconut oil, palm oil) and Transfats (vegetable shortening, cookies, cakes, several types of snack foods).
Fats also help our immune system processes. If we don’t consume enough fat in our diet, our immune system may suffer. When our immune system is out of whack, we are more susceptible to illness. And when we are ill, we often lose our appetite, gain a larger appetite, and/or become more sedentary. More calories plus less activity equates to potential weight gain. Less calories and less activity can also contribute to potential weight gain because our body looks for sugar, glycogen (in muscle and liver), and fat for energy. During this process our insulin levels get elevated and our metabolism is negatively impacted; hence, potential weight gain.
An NIH-funded study found that the source of calories, whether from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, isn’t as important as the number of calories we consume. What does this mean for weight loss? First, we should stick to the recommended daily intake of fats (25-35%). Second, we must also stick to our recommended daily caloric intake (based on personal wellness goals, body composition, and physician advise). In sum, we can gain weight by exceeding daily recommended calories via consumption of fats, proteins, and/or carbohydrates!
Remember, strategic and purposeful fat (AND overall food intake and calorie) consumption is the key.