Can your health be described by a single number? Probably not. Nick Galli explains why body fat percentage is important, but not the only thing you should measure. Also, how best to use numbers to stay motivated when trying to lose weight.
The following is a summary of this episode. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen. It’s more fun that way.
Should you care about your body fat percentage?
When trying to lose weight and get in shape, it’s easy to become focused on number. For some it’s the number of calories we consume. For others it’s the number we see on the scale. Some of us focus a lot on our body composition or body fat. What percentage of our body is fat and how can we get that number down.
For Scot, one of his major turning points in his life was when he found out his body fat percentage. He had assumed he had been putting on some weight, but didn’t realize just how much. He went to a professional to get his body composition measured, and was shocked to find he was sitting at 29% body fat.
Knowing that number led Scot to make a lot of serious changes in his lifestyle. He worked hard to get that number down. It was a benchmark for him that he finds crucial to defining his level of health and fitness. Knowing his body fat and seeing it drop because of his efforts is a great motivator for him.
Meanwhile, Troy has never had his body fat tested. Troy is not a “numbers guy.” He doesn’t sweat his calories. He doesn’t weigh himself daily. He’s never weighed his food to make sure he gets the perfect portion size. Instead,Troy focuses on how he looks in the mirror and how his body feels throughout the day.
Troy wonders if framing your health around a number like body fat percentage could ultimately be stressful, demotivating, and detrimental to everyday people.
Too much body fat is a bad thing
Don’t be mistaken, too much body fat is a bad thing. According to Nick Galli, a high body fat percentage is a reliable indicator of a slew of serious health problems including:
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancers
- Fatty liver disease
- Kidney disease
A high body fat percentage often indicates a high amount of visceral fat which sits under the skin and around the organs. For men, this fat often will form around the stomach. If a person has too much visceral fat surrounding their organs, the fat will interfere with how well those organs function.
A simple rule of thumb: if you can keep the amount of excess fat in your body down, your overall health will be better.
Body fat is only a part of your health
Nick Galli has worked with everyday people and elite athletes. He works to help them achieve their health goals and stay motivated. Nick believes that body fat is a superior metric for assessing your health than body weight alone, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you focus on.
“Any time a number is involved, we run the risk of becoming a slave to that number,” says Nick.
Becoming fixated on a single body metric can lead to bad thinking. The perception of success or failure in health can become tied to how that one number is doing. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with a number like body fat percentage. A person may become overly rigid in their behaviors to control that number, which can lead to mental health problems and even physical problems.
For example, when considering body fat, genetics is still a factor. Some people’s body’s are predisposed to have a higher body fat. They’re perfectly healthy, but their measured number is higher than the average. No matter what they do, they will never be able to get their body fat percentage down to the “acceptable range” prescribed by the Center for Disease Control.
And that’s okay. Health isn’t just a single number.
Too much weight loss can be worse than being heavy
If you’re trying to lose weight and are using body fat percentage as your goal, be careful. It’s easy to assume that the lower that body fat number goes, the healthier you will be. This is not the case.
Yo-yo dieting is a term to describe when a person adopts a strict diet to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time, then gain that weight back once they stop dieting. This is not a healthy way to lose weight. According to Nick, research has shown that losing and gaining a large amount of weight is actually worse for your body than being consistently overweight. Yo-yo dieting puts a lot of stress on your body and should be avoided.
Additionally, having too little body fat can be just as dangerous – if not more so – than being overweight.
How to measure your body fat
There are plenty of ways to measure your body composition, each with their own strengths and weaknesses:
- Skinfold Caliper Pinch Test
The pinch test is one of the oldest methods of testing a person’s body fat percentage. Folds of skin are pinched by a professional at different sites all over the body. These folds are then measured by a caliper. All the measurements are placed into an equation which provides a relatively accurate body fat percentage. It’s relatively quick and pretty reliable.There are a few downsides to the pinch test. It requires another person to do it reliably which can be inconvenient. The results may vary depending on the skill of the person conducting the test. And it can be uncomfortable to be pinched and measured.
- Smart Scale
Smart scales and other handheld body composition devices rely on bioelectrical impedance to measure your body fat. These devices send a very small electrical current through your body and uses the signal to calculate how much fat is present in the body.These devices are relatively affordable, easy to use, and the technology is pretty reliable in modern devices. While they may not be as accurate as a professional test, these devices are a great way to track your weight loss progress day to day.For the most reliable measurements with these devices, consistency is key. Make sure you repeat the same conditions every time you step on that scale. Wear the same amount of clothes. Take the measurement at the same time of day. Decide whether you’ll measure before or after breakfast. If the situation is inconsistent, your numbers will be inconsistent.
- Girth Measurements
Body fat can also be estimated by using what are called girth measurements. A professional will measure different parts of your body and use equations to calculate your body composition. This includes measuring wrists, forearms, hips and waists. The hip to waist ratio is the most common.
- Bod Pod or Air Displacement Plethysmograph
The gold standard of body composition testing is the Air Displacement Plethysmograph – commonly called the Bod Pod. This device is a giant egg shaped bod that the person climbs into wearing a speedo and swim cap. The device uses the displacement of air within the device to give an extremely accurate reading of your body composition in a quick and painless way.While the Bod Pod does give the most accurate numbers available, the test can be expensive and hard to access.Regardless of how you choose to measure your body fat, it’s important to remember that there will be day to day fluctuations in your body. Have multiple data points and keep an eye on your weight loss trends.
Health is More than Any Single Number
Nick Galli works to help athletes and regular people get motivated to be healthy. He’s in favor of helping people find whatever method works best for them to make the changes they want. Whether it be Scot’s focus on measurable metrics or Troy’s quality of life approach.
Every person is different. It’s important to find the motivational strategy that resonates best for the individual and fits best with their lifestyle. For some people, constantly measuring body fat can be very stressful. For others finally seeing that number go down can be exhilarating.
Find the method that works best for you. Recognize the discrepancies in your health. Identify where you are and where you want to be. Then come up with stair step goals and a strategy to help you achieve them.
Healthcare professionals, dietitians, personal trainers can all help you best identify your health discrepancies and help you come up with an effective strategy to reach your goals.
Most importantly, don’t only focus on the numbers. Focus on the way you’re feeling and the satisfaction you get from working towards getting healthier.