Nothing has a greater negative effect on overall health than excess body fat. Too much fat is linked to chronic health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer.
While it’s possible to have too little body fat, the vast majority of people must worry about just the opposite. We’ve already mentioned a few of the health risks of excess body fat, so the overriding questions are: how do I measure body fat, what is my body fat, and what percentage is too high?
Deciding whether an individual is at a proper body weight is often determined by calculating BMI (body mass index) or by indirectly measuring body fat levels. These are not interchangeable terms. BMI is generated as a function of an individual’s height and weight. Measurement of body fat tells an individual how much of their total weight is body fat – and, consequently, how much is lean tissue (bone, blood, organs, and muscle).
Calculating BMI is mathematics: divide your height in inches by your weight in lbs squared and multiply the result by 703. Here is an example for a 5’6” individual weighing 140lbs: 140 / 66 x 66 = .0321 x 703 = 22.6. This individual’s BMI is 22.6.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides the following ranges for BMI values for adults: Underweight = values less than 18.5; Recommended = 18.6 to 24.9; Overweight = 25.0 to 29.9; Obese = values of 30.0 and greater. BMI is used commonly because it is easy to calculate, and volumes of research dating back to the 1950s shows that higher BMI numbers do correlate with increased levels of body fat. (If you’re a little mathematically challenged, there are some great BMI calculation tools on the Internet.)
At the JRMC Wellness Centers, we have the ability to indirectly measure body fat levels with bioelectrical impedence analysis (BIA) scales. While all that may sound a little intimidating, the scale works in a pretty simple manner. After entering some data about yourself (height, gender, etc.) you grab handles on either side of the display. The scale then sends an imperceptible electrical current from one hand through you to the other hand. Electricity travels more quickly through lean tissue (which is mostly water) than it does through body fat. So, after you are weighed and your information is entered, the scale displays your weight and percent body fat.
Body fat ranges are gender specific. For reproductive reasons, women can carry more body fat than men and not suffer greater health risks. As a result, acceptable percentages for women are those under 32%, and for men, those under 26%. This means that percentages greater than 26 in men and 32 in women correlate to a much greater risk of death from the diseases and conditions listed in the first paragraph of this column. It is far better to monitor your body fat percentage than your total weight, as it is body fat percentage that dictates metabolic health … or dysfunction.
“Knowledge is power” is a common quote. If you know your body fat percentage and you know that higher body fat percentages put you at greater risk of many negative health conditions, then you have already started to empower yourself to make positive changes. Find out where you stand. Then if you find yourself standing in the wrong place, move to a better one.