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What is body fat?

Body fat is the total amount of accumulated fat in a person in relation to their total mass. The body fat percentage indicates how much percentage (%) of the body should consist of fat. If the proportion is too high, this may contribute to the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as arteriosclerosis and coronary heart disease (CHD). In such a case, it is recommended that the body fat amount should be reduced, preferably by means of a low calorie diet and exercise.

In relation to sports, body fat can impact the performance of the sport professional either by improving or hindering it. Below we provide a thorough detail into understanding body fat, how it can be measured and methods of reducing body fat content. In our body fat table, you can also read the values in the normal range and which values are too high. The body fat percentage chart was created for this reason, to highlight the ranges that are deemed healthy or not, based on a person’s height and weight.

Body fat percentage and BMI

A person’s BMI (Body Mass Index), body weight and sporting profession all have a relation to each other and how they contribute to the person’s body fat amount. For this reason we can always have a rough guide if a person is within the normal, underweight or overweight classification. The BMI provides details of this based on the relativity of height and weight but not much more information is provided, the body type is also not taken into account in this measurement, therefore it can only be considered as a section when looking to understand the body’s composition.

Likewise the information provided by the percentage of body fat only indicates how much percentage of body mass is from fat stores.. This is because fat deposits are not always visible from the outside – sometimes there are organs that are surrounded by body fat collections. Compared to the BMI though, the body fat percentage is a more accurate indicator of the levels of fat a person has and understanding this can help people, especially athletes to understand what level they need to be at to perform at a peak level. E.g. the body fat needs of a tennis player will be different from that of a sumo wrestler.

Ideal body fat: How much body fat is healthy?

As good and appealing as a person’s physical appearance is on the outside, it may not be a true reflection of their actual health and fitness. There are many poor and extremely unhealthy causes of a low body fat percentage e.g. illnesses, poor nutrition and drug abuse. The body fat percentage however does provide an indication of the optimum level a person should be around to avoid health risks

As mentioned, the optimum body fat percentage depends on various individual factors such as age, gender, body type and activity type. Due to this very reason, it has been difficult for a general consensus to be drawn for exact values, although comprehensive statistics have shown a “healthy” body fat percentage to be within the following:

  • Men: 12% – 20%body fat
  • Women: 20% – 30% body fat

A higher value than these can indicate an increase in lipid, cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which can also result in the calcification of the blood vessels. This increases the risk for diseases such as stroke, cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes.

Due to the anatomical structure of men and women e.g. bone density, height and function of hormones; men tend to generally have a lower body fat percentage compared to women. The hormones in a woman’s body stocks energy reserves in the form of fat in anticipation for future pregnancy and is understood as a primal adaption for survival of both the mother and child. It is also understood that the basal fat oxidation is higher in the average man compared to a woman. This means in general, the fat stores in the average man is metabolised faster than it is in a woman.

Types of body fat

Adipocytes (fat cells) make up the adipose tissue in the body, with their job being uniquely to store energy in the form of fat. The difference however though is the method of distribution from person to person. There are two types of fat storage in the body:

  • visceral fat (deep fat surrounding various internal organs)
  • subcutaneous fat (directly beneath the skin)

Visceral Fat

Looking from a health standpoint, visceral fat is more dangerous that subcutaneous fat. Also known as ‘active’ fat, this type of fat store is usually found around the abdominal cavity but due to its nature, it can increase the risk of:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Breast cancer

Studies have shown that a high amount of visceral fat especially around the abdominal region can play a larger role in increasing insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and can also increase the risk of dementia. Although not conclusive, it is suggested that the hormone leptin which is release by fat in the abdominal region has an adverse effect on the brain.

Subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat is that which if found directly under the skin and covers most parts of the body especially the thighs and buttocks. The subcutaneous fatty tissue is histologically created by connective septa tissue and depending on the area of the body it is, its amount can differ. It can be several centimetres thick, for example in the buttocks or the female breast.

Subcutaneous fat tissue provides various uses and benefits to the body including as:

  • Padding
  • Thermoregulation via insulation
  • Energy reserve

As this type of fat is directly beneath the skin, it is much easier to visually see and is therefore used when using body fat measuring methods such as calipers to estimate the amount of body fat. It is important to ensure that there is a not high amount of this fat type in the body either. As although it is more dangerous to have higher amounts of visceral (deep) fat in the body than it is to have subcutaneous (superficial) fat, high amounts of subcutaneous fat can still be dangerous to the health. This is why it is essential to find out what kind of fat is being stored in the body, so that an effective weight loss regime (if needed) can be used in combating especially the visceral fat.

Structural fat and fat storage

The percentage of body fat in itself provides no information about the ratio of different types of fat in the body. There does exist however significant differences. It is important for example to note that structural fat has various important uses around the body such as strengthening the joints as a form of protection against impact pressures or surrounding vital organs. More specifically, structural fats are required in all the cells in the body and are needed inside every cell in our bodies and are particularly necessary for the growth of the brain of a foetus.

Storage of fat however can be harmful for the health – at least if too much is present. This type of fat is usually deposited in the subcutis (subcutaneous tissue) – especially the stomach, thighs and buttocks. In times of hunger or lack of energy, these fat reserves are the first point of call from the body and are tapped to replace the lost energy required to survive. This is why someone with a good fat store can usually survive up to 40 days without food.

In general, the percentage of body fat should neither be too high nor too low. Too much fat is harmful for the health in particular for the cardiovascular system. Too low fat percentage is also harmful; as the body’s fat reserves are then attacked and the body can no longer work correctly. This is the case with men with a body fat percentage under six percent and twelve percent in the case of women.

Danger for the cardiovascular system

If the percentage of body fat is too high, it can have a negative effect on the health, as a high percentage of body fat is usually associated with an increase of fat lipids in the blood as well as higher blood pressure. This also increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as arteriosclerosis and heart attack or stroke. It is also more likely for there to be development of diabetes mellitus (type 2 diabetes) which can be caused by an increased body fat percentage.

Reducing excess body fat

Reducing body fat percentage in the long term is much more effective than utilising lightning or crash diets. Only a thorough change in lifestyle and nutritional habits can help to produce an effective long term result. In addition to a healthy, low-fat diet it is particularly important that lots of aerobic exercise is also included.

If your body fat percentage is not only high but you are also overweight, then a change in diet is the first recommended action. Eating healthier foods such as vegetables, fruit and wholemeal products can provide less calories but more nutrients for the body, which means there is no need for the body to hold on to unnecessary energy stores in the form of fat.

Activities most suited for reducing excess body fat include endurance sports such as jogging, walking, swimming or cycling. Participating in these at least three to four times per week for at least 30 minutes per sport is usually recommended. At a point where a visible result can be observed, a regular strength training regime can then be recommended to target muscles making them stronger and more effective.

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