By Joe Wilkes
We always talk about how we want to lose weight. But that's not really what we mean. When we talk about losing weight, we're really talking about losing fat, getting rid of the spare tire, turning the keg into a six-pack. It's about more than getting ready for swimsuit season or squeezing back into your "skinny" jeans, though. More importantly, it's about having a healthy amount of body fat so we don't put ourselves at risk for myriad diseases. After all, our bodies need some fat. Fat is responsible for regulating our body temperature. It insulates our vital organs. It stores energy our bodies draw on to function. Not to mention everyone wants a few strategically placed curves, and you can't get them with just bone and muscle. So what exactly is a healthy amount of body fat?
1. What is body fat percentage? It's simple enough. It's the amount of adipose tissue (body fat) we carry compared to our weight. A 160-pound person who is carrying 32 pounds of fat would be said to have 20 percent body fat. We all want to be working toward an ideal body fat percentage, staying within a range where we carry enough fat to feel and look healthy, but not so much that we develop the health issues associated with obesity, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. So what are the ideal ranges, and what are the best ways to get rid of unwanted excess adipose tissue, aka body fat?
Most organizations classify a healthy body fat percentage as 20 to 25 percent for women and 8 to 15 percent for men. Women who have more than 30 percent body fat and men with more than 25 percent are generally classified as obese. There can be some variations that are still considered healthy. Athletes will tend to have less body fat, for example; however, below a certain point, low body fat can be as dangerous as high body fat.
There are various ways to calculate body fat percentage, with varying degrees of accuracy and expense. Many clinics offer what they describe as the only, truly accurate readings, derived from water displacement, ultrasonic, or X-ray tests. Much simpler than that are many home body fat scales. While simple, they are fairly inaccurate. The best home device is an inexpensive and simple test using skinfold calipers. These calipers measure folds of skin at various parts of the body and provide an estimate of body fat percentage based on those measurements.
Inaccurate or not, most trainers recommend using some sort of body fat calculation in addition to being weighed on a scale. For most of us, though, true accuracy isn't that important, just as long as we're sure our body fat percentages are going down. We can starve ourselves and lose weight to reach that goal, but a lot of that loss will be muscle loss and won't give us the healthy look or feeling most of us seek.
2. Muscle burns fat. One reason we want to be cognizant of our body fat loss, as opposed to mere weight loss, is because muscles burn calories, and if we lose muscle, it will make burning calories—and, by extension, fat—much more difficult. Because the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn—even when you're resting! So it's important to follow an exercise program that combines resistance activities, like weight lifting, that build muscle with aerobic cardio activities that burn calories.
The really good news is that when you exercise, your body begins turning stored fat into glucose for fuel before it begins breaking down muscle for fuel. This is why high-level athletes can eat so much and still stay sleek. Take Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' 12,000-calorie-a-day training diet, for example. Because he has such a low percentage of body fat, he has to provide his body with enough fuel or his body will begin breaking down the proteins in his muscle, since it's pretty much out of body fat to use for fuel. During newsletter chats and on the Message Boards, P90X graduates often complain of an ammonia-like smell after working out. That smell is indicative of the protein breakdown that occurs when their elite new low-fat bodies have begun tapping into muscle for fuel. It generally means they need to start eating more to make it through the workouts—a problem most of us would love to have! Most of us aren't dealing with the problems of elite athletes trying to get enough fuel, though; we're just trying to get our bodies to approach that kind of shape.
One popular exercise myth is that if we're trying to lose body fat, we should just do lots of cardio and sweat and burn fat, then build muscle later. That's a sort of "lose weight now, get in shape later" approach. There's some truth there. The more we exercise, the more calories we expend and the sooner our bodies tap into our fat stores for energy. But by building up muscle, in addition to doing cardio activity, we can burn a lot more calories, even while we're at rest, and maximize the calorie burn during cardio. Plus, when the stored fat begins to melt off, there will be lean, sexy muscle in its place.
3. How diet affects body-fat composition. Something we've discussed before is the myth that dietary fat contributes to body fat. This is only half true. The fact is that body fat, or adipose tissue, comes from stored calories. Your body fat doesn't care whether the calories come from fat, protein, or carbs. Don't believe me? Try drinking a six-pack of fat-free beer every day—you'll have a pony keg under your shirt in no time. The "beer belly" comes by its name honestly, and beer doesn't have a gram of fat in it. Neither does soda, and it's one of the main culprits behind the obesity crisis.
Fat does have more calories per gram than either carbohydrates or protein do, so it's wise to monitor the amount of fat in your diet, but if it's healthy fat, like the kind found in avocados, olive oil, fish, or nuts, there's no reason to exclude it from your diet. It's wise to avoid saturated and trans fats, but that has more to do with lipids in your blood, not the composition of adipose tissue.
4. Can you target areas where you want to burn body fat? There's a French proverb that says that sooner or later, every woman must choose between her face and her bottom. What this means is that it's a myth that you can target one area of your body over another for fat loss. While we may mainly want to get rid of our guts or slim down our thighs, our bodies are largely democratic about where they take stored fat from—they take it from all over.
~If you've seen Madonna lately, you can see the results of her latest workout regimen. She has incredibly low body fat, but her face has lost its fat as well, making her bone structure appear more prominent, with a more sunken appearance (although it looks like some cosmetic procedures may have helped her fill it out somewhat). So if you ever see advertising for any product that claims to burn fat off one part of your body and not others, it's over-promising. You can target specific muscle groups with exercise, but fat burning is a more generalized proposition.
Any activity will go a long way toward reducing body fat percentage. And health professionals advise that even a modest decrease in body fat percentage will have extraordinary health benefits. So even if achieving that ideal "supermodel" weight seems impossible, you can really enhance your quality of life by making a few minor changes in your activity level and diet. Engaging in a comprehensive program like ChaLEAN Extreme, which encompasses resistance training and aerobic exercise as well as a healthy diet, is a great place to start. Here's to seeing less of us!