With the available tools to identify health risks associated with body fat, anyone concerned about their health should gather as much data about body composition and body fat distribution as possible. Compiling multiple measurements and analyzing them provides a better idea of a person’s current health status and will help determine the next course of action. For example, BMI alone can be beneficial. But when combined with waist circumference, a greater understanding of risk can be achieved. Likewise, when combining BMI and waist circumference with body fat percentage, an ideal conclusion of health status can be made.
In the lab accompanying this chapter, you will be guided through the process of assessing your BMI, waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, and body fat percentage.
The next course of action is to set goals and formulate a plan to get to a healthy range of weight and body fat percentage. Where weight loss is needed, the plan should include a balance of calorie restriction and physical activity/exercise. This might also include tracking your current eating and activity habits. More specific information on weight management strategies will be discussed in a later chapter.
Low Body Composition
Because more people experience excess body fat, the focus up to this point has been on health concerns related to overweight and obesity. However, fat is an essential component to a healthy body, and in rare cases, individuals have insufficient fat reserves, which can also be a health concern. The range of essential body fat for males is 3-5% and 8-12% for females. Attempting to, or intentionally staying in those ranges, through excessive exercise or calorie restriction is not recommended. Unfortunately, low body fat is often associated with individuals struggling with eating disorders, the majority of whom are females.
The main concern of low body fat relates to the number and quality of calories being consumed. Foods not only provide energy but also provide the necessary nutrients to facilitate vital body functions. For example, low amounts of iron from a poor diet can result in anemia. Potassium deficiencies can cause hypokalemia leading to cardiovascular irregularities. If adequate calcium is not being obtained from foods, bone deficiencies will result. Clearly, having low body fat, depending on the cause, can be equally as detrimental to health as having too much.
The health concerns most often linked to low body fat are:
- Reproductive disorders
- Infrequent or missing menstrual cycles
- Respiratory disorders
- Immune System disorders
- Circulatory disorders
- Premature death
In some cases, despite attempts to gain weight, individuals are unable to gain the pounds needed to maintain a healthy weight. In these cases, as in the case of excess fat, a holistic approach should be taken to determine if the low levels of body fat are adversely affecting health. These individuals should monitor their eating habits to assure they are getting adequate nutrition for their daily activity needs. Additionally, other lifestyle habits should be monitored or avoided, such as smoking, which may suppress hunger.
Additional reading on low body fat and its impact can be found on the Livestrong.com website, on this page: At what body fat percent do you start losing your period?.
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