What's the ideal body fat percentage?
So how fat should you be? As a percentage I mean. We’ve heard of athletes having as little as just a few percent body fat. In his prime, American Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno boasted a body fat reading of an astonishing 2.8 percent.
Of course, that’s an extreme athletic level and not at all a measure we need to pay much attention to. But what is worth paying attention to is that fact that too much body fat leads to serious health issues. If we look at the US, which we often do as a reference point, seventy five percent of the population is now overweight, with many obese and some morbidly obese. In some of the more unhealthy Gulf States, I expect the figures to be similar or even higher.
Measuring healthy weight
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) “overweight and obesity” are defined as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health.” And we are now a fat world, with overweight and obesity rates having doubled since 1980 so that more than two billion of us around the world are categorized accordingly.
To measure obesity the WHO uses the body mass index (BMI). We can calculate it by taking the person’s weight in kilograms and dividing it by height in meters squared. A BMI greater than or equal to 25 is then considered overweight by the WHO.
Using BMI as a measure is OK to get a rough idea of population studies of overweight and obesity figures, but on an individual level I don’t favour it as a standalone test for making the link between weight and health. mostly because there are simply too many body types and too many other factors to consider.
To understand just how healthy my individual clients are, therefore, an essential test for me is body fat percentage. As the name implies, this test will let me know just what percent of your body is fat.
“Your body fat percent is similar to the oil gauge of your car: As the percent body fat increases, so does your risk of disease”
The ranges and why they matter
The essential levels are the absolute minimum necessary for both physical and physiological health, but what we are interested in here is the healthy range. No one needs to be as low as those professional athletes, and for most of us that can actually be rather unhealthy. Having too little body fat can in fact lead to conditions including, among others, bone loss, fatigue, hormone imbalance, and a weaker immune system.
What I like to see is a range for my male clients of about 15% to 18%, and for my female clients about 22% to 24%. The reality though is that most of my first-time clients will be above the healthy range. And it is no surprise: Our grain-based, high sugar diets make it just about impossible to maintain healthy body fat levels.
The problem with carrying too much fat is that the body is simply not programmed to deal with it. Studies over the years have made this crystal clear. For example, carrying too much fat increases risk of diabetes by 20 times; even being mildly overweight significantly increases our risk of developing coronary heart disease; and body fat has been linked to an increased risk of many types of cancer. These diseases can be grouped under the category of cardiometabolic disease, which is the global epidemic of the 21st century.
It is also important to stress that the line is a very fine one indeed. What I have seen over and over again with my clients through the years is that being just a little bit outside of that healthy range is enough to bring on potential health issues, whereas dropping within the healthy range is much of the time all that is needed to see health readings improve across the board. Your body fat percent is similar to the oil gauge of your car: As the percent body fat increases, so does your risk of disease.
What to do
The solution as you know is pretty much entirely in your hands, and as obvious as you would imagine. We have to switch to healthy eating. Do not call it a diet. We don’t need to use that word. This is about healthy versus unhealthy eating, and it has to be maintained over a lifetime. This means eating natural foods (meats, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, eggs), limiting alcohol as much as possible, and entirely eliminating grains, sugars, and milk from our diets.
Finally, we do have to add the caveat that other factors may be at play when it comes to controlling weight and body fat – particularly as we age – and so having an annual health check should be part of our body fat management plan. In addition to getting your body fat percentage tested, then, we also want to look at hormone levels, blood sugar (especially the HbA1c which shows your blood sugar over the last few months), lipid panel, and inflammatory markers.
Hormones in particular play a significant role in our body composition, because as we age our hormone levels can deplete considerably. This means that even if you eat well, it may be near impossible to maintain that ideal body fat percentage without some support from bioidentical hormone therapy – especially thyroid, testosterone, and DHEA – to keep your percent body fat within normal levels.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.