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How Do You Know If You Are Too Fat?

Between fashion magazines showing gaunt models and some self-proclaimed fitness experts sporting potbellies, how do you know if you are carrying too much body fat?

Some common measures that do not work:

  • Some "experts" use the Body Mass Index (BMI) as a sort of rule to measure whether a person is too fat. The BMI can be worse than useless. Disregard it. The BMI normally shows a fat person as being in the normal range.

  • How you compare to other people you know. Other people are not medical instruments. What matters is your actual body composition, not your body composition relative to others. Consider also that in the USA more than 85% of the population is too fat. You get a useless idea of your body fat by comparing to others.

  • How you feel. Many fat people feel just fine. This does not mean they are healthy or lean enough, just that how they feel has adjusted to their current condition. Many blind people feel fine; this does not mean they can see.

  • A doctor's advise. Medical doctors are not health experts. They are medical experts. There is a huge difference.

One measure that works for men is a body fat scale. A man with double digit body fat is too fat. He's starting to court danger as his body fat rises past 7%. However, nobody has a number that applies to women. Why is this? And why 7% for men?

The key is the brown adipose tissue, or "brown fat." Contrary to the hype about it, this fat has no physiological significance in adult humans (source: The New England Journal of Medicine, April 2009). It is not a fat furnace; it IS fat.

This fat is basically a cancer factory. It has other deleterious effects on health, also. So the less of it you have, the better off you are. Remember, though, we are talking about fat. Not about weight. What matters is the ratio of lean mass to body fat. Yes, of course, a morbidly obese person weighs too much. But you can lower your weight by amputating a leg. Obviously, that isn't a great long-term solution to being too fat.

Quick assessment

The neat thing about brown fat is the body stores it in obvious places. Exactly where will vary by sex and by individuals within that sex. Either way, brown fat distorts the contours of the body. When there is too much brown fat, the body does not look the way it should look. The 7% number for men plays out here. It's more complicated for women, though.

Both sexes store brown fat "all over" with concentrations in some areas.

  • Men tend to store this fat around their livers. The classic beer gut is brown fat. In other words, if the belly isn't flat then you are too fat.

  • Women tend to store this fat around their thighs. The classic thunder thighs problem is a signal that there is too much fat on the body.

Lack of definition in the arms and legs is another sign. You should be able to see those muscles. If you can't, then you are undermuscled, too fat, or both. Other signs include love handles, a fatty neck, and/or a fatty waist (check the waist size on your pants; for men, this should be no larger than it was in high school).

Unless you go into denial, you can tell when you are too fat--just by looking.

More, below....

Women and body fat

Women can safely store far more total fat than men can. Women store it in their breasts and in other places, providing the curves that drive men wild. But this fat that rounds out female curves isn't the brown fat (it's actually called "white fat" though it may be yellow).

An individual woman is too fat when the brown fat starts accumulating in those obvious places and distorting her figure. Instead of rounding out her curves, it gives her lumps, bulges, or waves. The "cellulite" or heavy dimples women complain about are also due to brown fat.

While a man can just step on a body fat scale to see if he has a poor lean mass to body fat ratio, a woman must be more discerning and use her best judgment. The danger here is nobody likes "being fat" and so denial sets in. So, women, be very careful that you don't get unrealistic in either direction.

Women will typically be healthy in the double digits, somewhere between 12% and 25%. Don't take this range as an absolute. 12% body fat for one woman may be perfect for her but disastrously too lean for her friend. Another may have her ideal body fat level at 25%, while this level would make her friend carry too much brown fat.

So, how can a woman tell if she is lean enough? Look at yourself in leotards or in the nude, to see if your curves look smooth and natural. Now, also look for definition. You should be able to see those muscles. And unless you are sedentary, you should also be able to see some decent vascularity; if your upper arm veins are buried in fat, you need to get rid of some fat.

Women who've had babies also need to allow for that. You may never get a perfectly flat tummy again and your hips won't be narrow and girlish again. This doesn't mean you aren't attractive. A mature figure really is attractive, so rejoice if you have one. But make it a mature figure that isn't distorted by brown fat.

Do you have a mature figure and hate your belly? Look at it sideways, and notice if it has a smooth curve to it or if it has more of an uneven bulge. The uneven bulge is caused by fat accumulation. If you don't have an uneven bulge, then your belly is just fine even if it seems a little round or convex. Women who aren't sure may want to note that the very beautiful actress Kim Basinger has exactly this kind of belly. She looks great with it.

You can change your body fat percentage one of two ways:

  1. Gaining muscle.
  2. Losing fat.

There's a limit to how much muscle you can gain. And if you are at, say, 40% body fat you simply cannot increase muscle mass enough to bring that percentage down to 6. Aint gonna happen.

One universal fact about body fat is that everyone who has too much of it acquired that fat one bite at a time. It takes 3500 calories to make a pound of fat. Anyone can lose fat simply by reducing portion size. Getting portions right has its challenges, though. For example, how do you ensure you have enough protein? There's also the matter of what you eat. A diet that goes from grain-heavy to green-heavy will result in a significantly positive change in the body fat ratio.

We have articles on fat loss in ourfat loss library. Now that you have a basic idea of how to tell if you need to lose some fat, get to it! If you need to lose fat, see those articles. Start immediately putting to use the things you learn. Over a few weeks, you will see a much leaner you. You can stay that way, without dieting, too.


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The articles on this site are authoritative, because:

  • Every contributor is an expert in his or her field.
  • The articles comply with the accepted principles of the bodybuilder literature.
  • The articles comply with the teachings of such luminaries as 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney.

 Where an article is not bylined with a specific author's name, it was written by Mark Lamendola (see photos on home page and elsewhere on this site). Mark is a 4th degree blackbelt, has not been sick since 1971, and has not missed a workout since 1977. Just an example of how Mark knows what he's talking about: In his early 50s, Mark demonstrated a biceps curl using half his body weight. That's a Jack LaLanne level stunt. Few people can even come close. If you want to know how to build a strong, beautiful body, read the articles here.

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