Forget About Body Fat Percentage (Maybe)

In the fitness world there is an obsession with knowing one’s body fat percentage or BF %. Of course, knowing your numbers in any aspect of life is certainly better than blindly walking through the world with your head buried in the sand. However, I’m going to comment on what I believe is an unnecessary fixation on the BF% number. First, most of what follows will be a commentary on athletes. If you do not train in the gym towards a goal, then yes, you should probably take a keen interest in what your body fat percentage is. Moreover, if you are sedentary and do not exercise, or you do but still have a large amount of body fat around your midsection, it’s likely that you have an unhealthy amount of visceral fat around your organs, which is very dangerous. If you need a kick in the pants to get up off the couch and get moving, go test your BF % and work to decrease it. Good. I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now we can move on.

Also, there is value in knowing what your lean body mass is. If you are eating one gram of protein and carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight, you’re likely taking in too many calories. A better formula would be to eat based on what your lean body mass is (total weight minus body fat). So, if I weight 180 pounds, but my lean body mass is 165 pounds, I should be taking in nutrients based on 165 pounds. This is especially true if fat loss is your goal.

Okay, so you’ve gotten through the first part of this and you’re thinking, “Sean, I do train hard and I’m an athlete. Don’t I need to know my BF %?” My answer to that is no. Let me explain. As a trainer and health club owner, I see too many people become distracted by obtaining a lower BF % and I believe this is the wrong goal. For most cross fit athletes, MMA fighters and other professional sports, the amount of body fat one has is nearly irrelevant. What matters more is performance and the ability to produce on command. For this goal, you need to have a little body fat for the body to tap into for energy. If, on the other hand, an athlete becomes obsessed with some abstraction like BF%, his or her ability to perform will be hindered by an unneeded distraction about knowing a piece of information that will not help them.

It should also be noted that body types range widely from person to person. Some folks might walk around at 10% body fat and looked cut and jacked out of their mind simply because they hold fat in different places. I know guys with 15% body fat with incredible abs. The same goes for women. So, if your goal is purely aesthetic, and you train hard and are healthy, the mirror is a much better guide than a BF measurement. Again, some people are genetically predisposed to store more fat in their legs and glutes. Some people store it in their midsection. Where your body’s fat stores are has as much impact on how you look as your BF % does. Bottom line here, bodybuilders and physique competitors should let the mirror be their guide.

Another very important thing to remember about body fat testing is the inconsistency in which results occur. The method of testing–calipers, bioelectrical impedance, hydrostatic tanks–they all produce different results. Most bioelectrical impedance machines (the ones where you grab the metal parts and hold your arms out) are very unreliable and produce varying results hour to hour. This is especially true if you are well hydrated or have an increased intake in sodium. My wife and I competed in a bodybuilding and physique show and our coach, IFBB Pro Jon DeLaRosa (www.JonDelarosa.com), kept our sodium intake high throughout the entire contest prep. About three weeks into the prep, one of my employees at the gym wanted to test Holly’s body fat and the result from the machine was so ridiculous that it made me laugh. It didn’t make her laugh though. Despite having become significantly leaner, the machine had her at nearly 30 % body fat, reading as overweight/obese. I reassured her not to worry and explained how the reading was off. But, Holly was nearly de-railed by a piece of false information. She should have trusted the mirror and herself. Calipers and hydro tanks are more accurate, however, it’s worth repeating that your BF % may not have any relevance to you, depending on what your goals as an athlete are.

In closing, if you are an athlete, don’t focus on BF %. It’s a complete distraction to you and will hinder your ability to achieve your goals. If you are NOT an athlete and you know that you have a significant amount of fat to lose, or your gut is solid from too much visceral fat, then you should know your BF% number and work to decrease it via training hard and fueling your body with the proper nutrients based on your lean body mass, not your overall bodyweight. Again, the real takeaway here is that there is no cookie cutter approach or metric that can be applied to the whole population for anything in life. That includes ideal BF %, BMI, sodium intake, or anything else. Know thyself. Don’t be defined or distracted by a number!

In health,

Sean

Check Your Carbs

Check Your Carb Sources

If you are overweight or carrying more body fat than you’d like, there’s a very high chance that you are eating too many carbohydrates. Carbohydrate consumption triggers the pancreas to release insulin to bring down blood sugar. Insulin then transports the glucose in the bloodstream into muscle tissue for repair or it stores the glucose in fat deposits. Since most Americans are consuming carbohydrates in abundance at every meal (and many don’t even know what a carbohydrate is) I suggest that you reduce your carb sources to only one or two total. My reasoning behind this is twofold; 1.) so that you can properly identify and measure out exactly the amount of carbohydrates you are consuming and 2.) so that you can identify if certain carb sources are causing your body distress and messing with your metabolic and digestive functions. The truth is that many people have an immune response to certain foods. Dairy, grains, soy and sugar, nightshades and citrus are all very common allergies for people.

The second reason given is also somewhat of a revelation that I’ve had recently. I’ve been battling autoimmune disease for the last 15 years. I thought that I had finally narrowed down the culprit foods to wheat and dairy, however it wasn’t until I began prepping for a bodybuilding show and my only carb source became jasmine rice that I realized my body gets inflamed from starches such as beans and potatoes as well. I had been consuming those foods, the same ones causing minor inflammation in my body for years thinking that I was doing better. I was, but it wasn’t until I really eliminated them for a period of time that I finally realized I may be better off without them. Also, it’s very easy for me to measure out the jasmine rice throughout the day so that I can properly measure the amount of carbs I’m getting. I find it much more difficult to do this eating sugars, flours, potatoes, beans and other carbohydrates.

The famous strength coach Charles Poliquin says you have to “earn your carbs”- meaning that your body fat must be low enough to utilize the carbs without turning them into fat. This happens from training intensely and being diligent about measuring your carbohydrates throughout the day. This is not to say that you need to deprive yourself of food or not indulge on occasion, but frankly, most people don’t need to eat as many carbs as they do. There are no “essential carbs” like there are amino acids and fats. Carbohydrates can be a great energy source for training, but if your bodyfat needs to come down, they are the first macronutrient to begin scaling back. So, learn which carbs you respond well to and then be sure to measure them out and consume the majority of your carbs around the time you train. This will decrease the likelihood they will be stored as extra fat.