Now, before I get into talking about body fat percentage I just want to make sure you all recognize that there is no hard and fast “rule” on body fat percentages (BFP) and what might be a good BFP for one may be too low for another. So for the purposes of this article I won’t be discussing ideal body fat percentages, I’m going to be talking about why you need some fat and symptoms if you don’t have enough.
Why? Well, I have had a number of private messages from an increasing number of individuals asking me for advice on how they can cut their body fat down to (what seems to me and many other health professionals) a “seriously unhealthy living” number.
Reason #1: The fat in your body is your back-up energy
Body fat provides back-up energy if your blood sugar supplies run out. This means after 4-6 hours without food, your body starts to break down fat to use it…you know…so you can continue to do all the things you love – like cook your next meal!
Reason #2: It provides insulation
Yes, we’ve all heard how blubber would keep you warm if you were a seal in the cold waters, I’m sure of it. But did you know your body fat provides you with insulation under your skin and protects you from cold but also heat. The fat in our body has thermoregulating effects that are absolutely needed! Have you noticed really cold hands and feet? Or maybe you are hypothermic normally…There may be other reasons for this, but it’s certainly a symptom of too-low-body-fat!
Reason #3: It protects your organs and bones
It’s true! There’s fat that you can’t see tucked away deep inside your body…it’s inside your bones and it’s around your body’s organs. Why, you ask? It provides support to your organs, helps to keep them in place, and it helps protect your bones from shock. The fat in your bones also stores important minerals that your body can use when it needs them! Sounds to me like having some of this good stuff inside can really be helpful, huh? Not to mention the fact that it also cushions your body overall – imagine how much it would hurt to sit on a chair and enjoy this post (among many others on this site) with no fat on your bottom!
Reason #4: Your nerve fibers will thank you
Fat is an important component (about 70%) of the myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates communicating neurons. This is crucial for nerve impulse transmission. These are the electrical messages that enable you to think, see, speak, move…LIVE! Degradation or destruction of the fat here would lead to slower and slower impulses, or the impulse would not be transmitted at all! This could lead to sensory impairments, coordination difficulties, among other things like the inability to control bodily functions (read: insufficient bladder control). Our brain is rich in fat…just a big ol’ fat-head!
Reason #5: It’s a part of every cell membrane
This is the good stuff – the stuff that holds each cell together! We’re all made up of gazillions of cells that make up tissues that make up organs and systems and ultimately create us as human beings (add in the metaphysical aspect of our lives, too though…that’s not made up of fat as far as I’m aware). Anyhow, being a part of every cell membrane means it helps transport nutrients and metabolites across these membranes. Let’s keep it there, okay?
Reason #6: Your body needs it to build important things
Your body uses fat in a variety of ways; it’s a very critical building block in many processes – like making hormones and other biochemicals necessary inside that little machine you call your body. Fat-soluble vitamins are also stored in fatty tissue so it’s important to maintain a healthy amount. Vitamin D is one such vitamin/hormone that is stored in fatty tissue – and from the previous post we are well aware that vitamin D can impact our immune function as well as other functions.
So it’s obvious: fat is crucial for normal physiology. Professor Marina Mourtzakis, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo was interviewed for “Scientific American” and emphasized the risks associated with an extremely low body fat. Stating that it “presents health risks, including increased risk of infection and injury”. The response was in regards to athletes and their seriously unhealthy low body fat percentages.
What does a too-low body fat look like?
- Low energy or chronic fatigue
- Exercise performance may decline
- Amenorrhea (yep, no period! or a serious change in your period characteristics)
- Cold hands and feet – or a general feeling of cold
- Lower resistance to infection
- Dry, scaly skin
- Hair loss
- Fluid and electrolyte imbalances can occur, too as a complication from prolonged periods of low body fat
You can do it, you can Google all the body fat percentages and recommended values for your age if you want…You can even buy one of those fancy schmancy body fat scales that will inaccurately measure your body fat with gross error ranges and give you values that vary depending on your hydration level (among other things). But I encourage you to ask yourself what difference this would make in your life. Is this going to be an extra stress? Will that number affect how you make changes in your life? Regardless of the number beneath your feet, between your toes (I’m talking about the one on the scale), I want you to focus on one thing: feeling healthy. A life based in moderation and balance is key. There will be days you exercise a little less than you normally do, and there will be days that you eat a little bit more than you should. That’s life. Real life.
Knowing your body fat percentage in a precise manner may lead you down a road of inappropriately assessing your body’s health. Stay active, eat in moderation, love your life. There is a great quote from Yoni Freedhoff that I want to leave you with:
Live the best life you can enjoy, not the best life you can tolerate.