If you’re fat you weigh more and if you’re slim you weigh less. Well that’s what everyone thinks anyway. Have you ever got on your old bathroom scales and felt elated or crestfallen because you’ve lost or gained weight without ever knowing how much of that weight is fat? As it turns out, on a fad diet, depressingly little of the weight people lose is fat, but at slimming clubs everywhere people are held-high because they lost a pound that week, or worse, 5lb.
Fat is a dirty word and is rarely mentioned in relation to slimming, let alone measured. Everything is about weight “Lose weight” “Weight concern ‘Weight Watchers’, ‘How to lose weight fast’, ‘Can you lose weight without exercise?’ (yes cos you lose muscle). The W word is everywhere, while the ‘F’ word is abandoned in a bad corner because people are scared to say it.
Can you imagine going to FatWatchers? No, because it sounds insulting doesn’t it? That’s how we think of the word fat, in a personal attack way. We must get comfortable with the word ‘fat’ and treat it as what it is, something physiological, a substance – we need to grasp that it’s not about looks, it’s about health. We must measure fat, know how fat acts and focus on getting our fat levels to healthy.
Can you be fat if your BMI is normal?
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the standard population-wide tool for determining if people are overweight, underweight or about right. It simply compares height to weight. It has its flaws, as follows, but in general is not as awful as people make out:
OK, let’s say we measure an elderly slim-looking inactive person’s BMI, one whose muscles are barely discernible, their BMI is likely to come out in the healthy/low range. Yet it’s only the lack of muscle that’s making them light, their fat percentage can be off the scale high. On the other hand you could measure an unfat-looking body builder’s BMI and it would show up in obese range. It doesn’t know they’re heavy because they’re muscly, it just assumes they’re fat. But the thing is, the majority of the population are not bodybuilders or very elderly. The majority are overfat, and the results truly reflect that.
BMI is used as a standard measure of obesity by the NHS because it can be easily applied to huge numbers of people. We don’t use it at fitnat but until another population-wide method is found by the NHS it’ll continue to be the general tool.
Why does it matter if you’re over-fat?
Carrying too much fat makes the body work badly. It affects hormone balance, blood sugar and organ health, not to mention stopping people being able to move and breathe comfortably. It can make people really fed up and depressed too because they feel unwell, they think they look bad, and being overweight messes with their happiness chemicals.
Being over-fat is a very serious health issue, being over’weight’ is not, necessarily.
Whilst we need a certain amount of fat, any excess is just a burden on the body. Keep this in mind if you’re on a weight-loss journey – which should be called your fat loss journey or your body composition improvement project!
But actually, don’t dismiss weight altogether…
While weight isn’t the primary measure it is a consideration in general assessment of health. You can fairly confidently say that a woman of 5ft 0in who is 12stone or a man who is 5ft 9in and 15 stone are over-fat, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be carrying 4-5 stone of extra muscle. Even in less extreme cases weight is still a factor to consider and at fitnaturally we work with weight ranges calculated using a well-trusted formula, the Hamwi method. Hamwi gives a range of ideal weights for height, accounting for body type. We assess weight, fat percentage (segmental) and waist size to work out a person’s optimum body composition goals.
How do you know how fat you are?
The best at-home device for measuring body composition is a set of bio-impedence scales. You stand on them in bare feet and grip their pull-up handles while they send a tiny electric current through the body. Electricity travels faster through water than through fat, muscle is water, fat isn’t, so the more resistance the current gets the more fat it calculates you have – put simply. They’re good if you use them in a controlled way (more later), and they give +/-4% accuracy. My own experience shows them to be more accurate than that, when I was running competitively I used the scales 2-3 times a week and got consistent readings, I then had a DEXA scan, which is one of the most accurate fat measuring methods that exists, it gave a figure 1% less than the scales had been consistently giving.
The scales we recommend to our clients are the very reasonably priced Omron BF-508s. They have footpads as well as handles which means they measure the composition of the lower and upper body and give a reading for visceral fat – the stuff stored inside your torso around the vital organs. The footpad-only scales that you find in department stores and large chemists will only tell you what’s going on from the pelvis down because the current goes up one leg, across the pelvis and down the other leg as it finds the shortest path to earth. If you’re an apple shape the footpad-onlys will probably tell you your fat is in the healthy range but they didn’t measure any of your belly fat! On the other hand if you’re a pear they’ll tell you you’re terribly fat but they don’t know you carry very little fat above the hips. Always get ones with handles. When I’m working one-to-one with clients I use Tanita Segmentals as they show a breakdown of fat in each arm and leg as well as giving figures for torso and overall fat, body water and muscle mass. They also have an athlete setting which compensates for the high muscularity of very active people. But they’re more expensive and you don’t really need their level of detail.
When you measure your fat at home you need to keep the conditions the same each time, same time of day, similar food types and amounts in the lead-up, hard level floor, dry body, warm room. You also need to be well hydrated so that the scales don’t misinterpret your dehydration as fat. You’ll get the most accurate reading last thing at night on a day you’ve drunk plenty and not exercised, but bear in mind you’ll be a few pounds heavier at the end of each day due to fluid.
Throw away your callipers
Don’t trust calliper readings. Callipers are only as good as the person using them, and the best operator can easily introduce errors by pinching a slightly different area of skin or not enough/too much skin. And if you’re having calliper measurements taken by a trainer who you’re paying to help you get leaner it can be in their interest to show a loss. Am I cynical? Yes a bit! Although there are plenty of professional aboveboard trainers out there but anyone worth their salt should be using bio-impedence.
How fat should you be then?
As a general guide, although there’s leeway for age, fat percentage should be:
- Female: 22-24%
- Male: 14-17%
Everyone’s visceral fat should be around 5%
When you get to over 50 you can be happy with 25-30% if you’re female and 18-20% if you’re male and your visceral can be slightly higher at perhaps 7%
Most people who come to us to lose weight are in the range of:
Female: 33-55% with visceral between 5 and 15%
Male: 18-40% with visceral between 8 and 15%
Women naturally carry more fat than men and need it for hormone regularity and bone protection, a woman starts getting into the health danger zone when fat percentage drops below a certain level, often that’ll kick in below 18%, whereas men can safely sit at around 5% if they need to (athletes). If you’re a female athlete sustaining a low fat percentage it’s vital to eat nutritiously, consider using our bespoke sports nutrition to learn how.
Don’t rush it or you’ll only be losing muscle
Diets that boast “Lose half a stone in a week!” and so on are just crazy, I guarantee that will not be fat , instead you’ll just be losing muscle and water and borking your metabolism in the process because muscle is active, it’s always doing stuff to keep us upright and moving around. Muscle burns energy, the less you have the less energy you’ll burn, even at rest. And you will have less if you’re on a crazy fad diet as your body eats its own muscle when you try to rush things.
Reducing fat percentage takes several months, on average eight, to show significant /real change, even if weight on the scales decreases fat probably won’t keep pace. When you think about it you’re actually trying to knock percentage points off something that’s already a percentage. Let’s say you’re 30% fat, if you get to 20% fat you’ve actually lost a third of your body fat event though it seems to have only reduced by 10% – I know that one takes some thinking about! Basically, once you start tracking your fat percentage don’t expect it to fly downwards like lightning, it takes a good while, visceral (the stuff inside the torso) even longer. If you lost one point off your visceral each week you’d likely be dead within three months! Give it time, think about it logically. Even when you reach goal weight fat percentage will take a few months to catch up – you can maintain goal weight but still see fat reducing, weird science but that’s how it goes.
Translating fat percentage into actual pounds of fat can be a helpful mental tool; when you know that you have x-pounds of fat it’s more easy to visualise the task.
For example, if you’re 12 stone, you weigh 168lb. If your fat percentage is 40% you calculate 40% of 168, which is 67lb of fat.
For a female the aim there should be about 37lb of fat and for a male around 23lb.
How to be less fat
I always say it’s 80% eats and 20% feets! That means it’s mostly what you don’t or do eat that means you lose fat or not. You can go along to the start line of any marathon and see loads of overweight and obese people who’ve spent hours and hours running but are still fat because they’ve eaten too much. Eating too much is generally how people get fat, regardless of all the other reasons bandied about everywhere. The ’20% feets’ bit means the exercise. Don’t believe anyone who says exercise doesn’t help with fat loss, it b-well does. Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that exercise uses energy and as long as you don’t go home and eat more than you just used you’ll lose fat. Even better you’ll be in a great mood and feel so good that you’ll be less likely to overeat – unless you’re in the mindset of “I just exercised so I deserve this cake”. One of the many brilliant things about exercise is its good effect on lowering your fat percentage, particularly visceral fat.
So to be less fat, eat less (but better), and move more. By the way, it doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon, it means you have to walk more, move more, drive less, get out of breath quite regularly and be able to lift stuff you need to lift in life.
Does width matter?
Fat percentage is *the* key indicator for body comp but should be measured in conjunction with waist size . The size of your waist is another good, and easy, indicator of how much fat you’re storing on and inside the torso, where your vital organs are – yes, they get fat too, then they don’t work as well as they should and the fatter they get the sicker you get, as a rule.
Waist sizes of more than 94cm (37in) for a man, and 80cm (31.5in) for a woman are linked to higher health risks. If you’re trying to get healthier, keep a tape measure handy and track waist waist size over the weeks and months.
What should I do now I’ve read this?
Well, after you’ve opened the door and gone for a 20 min walk get yourself some body comp scales and a tape measure, find out how fat and wide you are. If you’re too fat and too wide eat less but better be active every day! Join fitnaturally and learn how to eat or how to run. We’ll get you to the healthiest body comp for life!
Big people are not always fat. Skinny people are not always lean.
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