Determining your body fat percentage is very important because the amount of fat in your body is related to your health as well as fitness and sports performance. But what exactly is body fat? And what percentage body fat is healthy for men and women?
For most of us, body fat has a bad reputation. From the dimply stuff that plagues women’s thighs to the beer bellies that can pop out in middle-aged men, fat is typically something we agonize over.
What is Body Fat?
Fat is one of the basic components that make up the structure of your body. The other components include muscle, water, bone and your organs — the brain, liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, pancreas, and intestines. etc. All are necessary for normal, healthy functioning.
A small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Excess fat is stored in the body’s cells until it is needed for energy. When the body requires more energy, it breaks down fats in a chemical process known as metabolism. As well as providing the body with energy, fats play an important role in the regulation of body temperature, the reduction of inflammation, blood clotting and brain development.
Body fat can be divided into two categories:
Essential fat and storage fat.
As its name implies, essential fat is necessary for normal, healthy functioning. It is stored in small amounts in your bone marrow, organs, central nervous system and muscles.
In men, essential fat is approximately 3% of body weight. Women, however, have a higher percentage of essential fat — about 12%. This is because their essential fat also includes some sex-specific fat found in the breasts, pelvis, hips and thighs. This sex-specific fat is believed to be critical for normal reproductive function.
Storage fat is the other type of body fat. This is the fat you accumulate beneath your skin, in certain specific areas inside your body, and in your muscles. It also includes the deep fat that protects your internal organs from injury. Men and women have similar amounts of storage fat.
It is desirable to have some storage fat due to the protective role it plays in your body. However, most storage fat is considered to be “expendable”.
- increases when you gain weight
- is what you want to lose when you lose weight.
For scientists however, fat is an intriguing subject. “Fat is one of the most fascinating “organs” out there,” says Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a research associate at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “We are only now beginning to understand fat.”
“Fat has more functions in the body than we thought,” agrees Rachel Whitmer, PhD, research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., who has studied the links between fat and brain health.
Fat is known to have two main purposes, says Susan Fried, PhD, director of the Boston Obesity and Nutrition Research Center at Boston University.
- Fat stores excess calories in a safe way so you can mobilize the fat stores when you’re hungry and
- Fat releases hormones that control metabolism
What does the type of fat and the area it is found indicate?
If you are gaining weight around the mid-section, this is generally a sign of two things:
1. Mainly cortisol which is the stress hormone and
2. Insulin which is your fat storage hormone.
If you are gaining weight in your triceps it is another sign of insulin. The insulin fat storage can occur if you have an excess of carbohydrates or sugar, so if you like to have a glass of wine or two!
Insulin however can be managed through diet.
If you gain weight on the booty, thighs or hips this is caused by the hormone estrogen. You might have been born with a pear shape, in which case this is likely to be genetic. However, if you have recently noticed you are gaining weight there you should check your estrogen levels and notice if you are showing any other estrogen related symptoms like estrogen related anxiety, endimetriosis, ovarian cysts or fibroids.
The weight you feel you gain before your period isn’t really ‘weight’, this is merely water retention, so prior to your period drink more water to help flush the excess water out. If you haven’t had your period in over a year, the it is time to get your hormones tested.
Staying up late?
The time that you go to bed can also effect weight gain around the mid-section, the later you stay up the more you are going to get hungry and have a snack, and generally we end up eating carbohydrates. There is a hormone called grelin, and it’s the hormone that will actually lead to packing on the pounds, if you stay up late.
The opposite of grelin is leptin, which is what tells you you’re full. When you stay up late, your grelin activates and you end up snacking and gaining weight around the mid-section. This is why it’s important to go to bed early, the ideal time being between 10.30 – 11.00. Also, eating too late can actually cause nightmares.
For shift workers, make sure you have scheduled times when you eat and scheduled times when you sleep and that you are getting enough hours of sleep. Try to avoid perpetually snacking through the day, because then you are not really aware of how much you are actually consuming, so you could be over-consuming. Make sure your meals are rich in protein, fat and fiber and keep carbs to a minimum.
The later you stay up the higher your stress hormones, so being really stressed out means your stress hormones are already elevated. So it’s important to make sure you are taking care of stress by looking at your food intake and taking the necessary supplements.
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