Everyone has body fat. You have it and your neighbor has it. It can have a huge impact on our health. So, it’s important to understand what it is, why we need some of it, and how to get rid of the rest of it.
Here are 7 things you need to know about body fat:
1. Here are the basics about fat.
When we hop on the scale, the scale shows us our body weight. That number includes all our total body composition: bones, muscles, organs, fat, etc. For the purposes of body fat, we think of it in two parts: body fat and everything else. Likewise, fat can be divided into essential fat and nonessential fat. Essential fat is the minimal amount of fat necessary for proper body function. This differs based on gender. For males, it’s 3 percent, and for women, it’s 12 percent. Anything above this is considered nonessential fat. A healthy range is usually 10-22 percent for men and 20-32 percent for women.
2. BMI is an effective measurement.
BMI is not a perfect measure of body fat; however, it is still effective and easy to calculate. Since BMI does not directly assess body fat, it can overestimate body fat in athletes, and underestimate it in older people. Generally, it is a very reasonable way to estimate body fat. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered normal; 25 to 29.0, overweight; and 30 or more, obese.
To calculate your BMI just visit the Harvard Health Publication calculator.
3. Where is the majority of your body fat?
The location of body fat matters. If it’s pressed tightly in and around essential organs, it can be more detrimental than if it is just hanging around in the thighs (more on that below). BMI does not calculate the location of the fat, so it can be helpful to pair it with a measurement of your waist circumference.
“Waist circumference can be measured by placing a cloth tape measure around the smallest part of the waist while standing relaxed,” says Tiffany Esmat, Ph.D. and body composition expert. “Waist circumference should be at or below 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.”
4. Gender differences are a serious consideration.
Men usually store their excess fat around the belly, whereas women store it around the legs and lower body. This gives them the apple shape and pear shape, respectively. As mentioned above, upper body fat can be a formidable foe; however, some scientists now suggest some lower body fat may actually be a friend to your health.
5. Leverage your anatomy.
It’s suggested that our ancient ancestors didn’t get to eat quite as often as us. As a result, their bodies learned to store away excess calories as fat to hold them over until the next meal. However, it appears that fat may also serve another purpose. Harvard Medical School is investigating two phenomenas that may help burn fat: brown fat cells, and a hormone called Irisin.
“Brown fat cells don’t store fat: they burn fat. If your goal is to lose weight, you want to increase the number of your brown fat cells, and to decrease your white fat cells,” says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, a professor at Harvard Medical School.
And Irisin may do just that, at least in mice. And those newly-created brown fat cells keep burning calories after exercise is over.
6. Increase your metabolism.
Yes, metabolism fluctuates based on the individual, and it can have a powerful effect on body fat. The good news is that metabolism can be developed. Various factors can be manipulated to increase metabolism.
Liz Applegate, Ph.D., FACSM, director of sports nutrition at the University of California at Davis, says, “Doing just one of these things might only lead to 60 or so more calories burned per day. But when you start factoring in several of these modifications, they can really add up and make a difference.”
The amount of calories burned by the body can increase with a few improved lifestyle changes.
Body composition: Muscles use more calories than fat. Replace that fat with muscle through strength training, and your body will burn more calories.
Calorie restriction: If we cut a large amount of calories out of our diet quickly in an attempt for quick weight loss, it will actually have the opposite effect. Self-starvation through detoxing or fasting decreases metabolism. Instead, maintain small, sensible deficits in calorie intake. A standard healthy calorie intake is 1,200 calories per day for women, and 1,800 per day for men.
Diet: Certain foods can increase our metabolism. Eat more of them. Applegate recommends eating more lean protein because it requires more energy to digest and more fiber because it will keep us full.
Also, always remember to stay hydrated.
7. Nothing beats exercise!
At the end of the day, as always, there is no substitute for good, high-level exercise. In a study by the American College of Sports medicine, researchers found vigorous exercise may be the best way to burn off nonessential fat. After observing high-, mid-, and low-level exercising groups, they found:
“The high-intensity group reduced total abdominal fat, subcutaneous abdominal fat, and visceral abdominal fat during the 16-week exercise period. Visceral fat surrounds the organs (e.g., liver and kidneys), and excessive amounts are associated with the development of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.”
So, if you want to be healthy, get out and exercise, whether it’s out on the track or in on the treadmill.