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Body Fat: Get the real skinny on fat

by Cathy Richey

Get the real skinny on body fat; not all fat is unhealthy. Your body requires essential fat for insulation, metabolic function, and to protect your organs.

So, what fat do you need and how much? Is your fat loss program out of whack? Sorting through all the advice on fat reduction and weight loss can be overwhelming. This article helps solve that problem.

Although many people have a hate relationship with their body fat and would like nothing better than to get rid of all of it, a certain amount is essential for our bodies to function properly.

Fat is one of the basic components that make up the structure of your body. The other components include muscle, water, bone and your organs (brain, liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach, pancreas,intestines). All are necessary for normal, healthy functioning.

Not all fat is unhealthy. Your body requires essential fat for insulation, metabolic function, and to protect your organs. For this reason, your body can convert both protein and carbohydrates (sugar) into fat when needed.

Unfortunately, your body cannot convert fat back into protein and carbohydrate (sugar). There are only two ways to lose fat:

  1. You can have it surgically removed.
  2. You can reduce your calories and increase your activity level so you burn it as fuel.

The first option is seldom, if ever, a good idea. The potential downsides are enormous, as far too many people have sadly discovered.

Two categories of fat

Body fat can be divided into two categories: Essential fat and storage fat.

As its name implies, essential fat is necessary for normal, healthy functioning. It is stored in small amounts in your bone marrow, organs, central nervous system, and muscles.

In men, essential fat is about 3 percent of body weight. Women have a higher percentage of essential fat--about 12 percent. This is because their essential fat also includes some sex-specific fat found in the breasts, pelvis, hips, and thighs. This sex-specific fat is believed to be critical for normal reproductive function.

Due to a higher fat percentage, a woman is naturally softer than a man. To expect a woman’s body to be as lean and as muscular as a man is to go against nature’s design. 

The leanest athletes typically compete at levels of about 5 to 8% for men; however, it is 10 to 5% for women. Bodybuilders will often compete at ranges even lower than these levels.

Male bodybuilders typically aim for a body fat percentage between 2 to 4% by contest time. Getting to this level usually requires a short-term, carefully planned, and strictly implemented exercise program that matches specific and carefully monitored variations in fluid consumption, macronutrient ratios, and caloric intake.

Storage fat is the other type of body fat. This is the fat you accumulate beneath your skin, in certain specific areas inside your body, and in your muscles. It also includes the deep fat that protects your internal organs from injury. Men and women have similar amounts of storage fat.

It is desirable to have some storage fat, due to the protective role it plays in your body. However, most storage fat is considered to be "expendable."

Storage fat increases when you gain weight, and it's what you want to lose when you lose weight. Most Americans have far too much storage fat, while some have too little. Too much or too little storage fat is unhealthy.

Where does fat come from?

Fat cells are made most rapidly during specific times:

  • The last three months as a fetus until about 18 months of age.
  • Between the ages of four and seven.
  • During early adolescence.

After that, fat cells only increase or decrease in size depending on whether you gain or lose weight.

However, if you become significantly overweight, you can develop new fat cells because there is a limit to how much your existing fat cells can enlarge. Another “danger” period is during the last three months of pregnancy, when studies have proven that new fat cells can be made if a woman gains excessive weight.

A normal weight person has about 25 to 35 billion fat cells while a person who has been overweight since childhood can have anywhere from 50 to 100 billion. A severely obese person can have as much as 270 billion fat cells! Fat cells tend to live forever in the body. Even if you go on a starvation diet, these cells will merely shrink rather than die or be absorbed back into the body.

Research indicates that a person who has more fat cells will have a harder time losing weight than a person with fewer fat cells. This highlights the importance of preventing childhood obesity since childhood is the time when the most fat cells are created.

Health practitioners universally agree that too much body fat is a serious health risk. Problems such as hypertension, elevated blood lipids (fats and cholesterol), diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, respiratory dysfunction, gall bladder disease, and some joint diseases are all related to obesity.

For a man of average height, every 10 lbs of body fat is an order of magnitude risk for prostate cancer. So, for example, consider a 150 lb man with 6% body fat. If he bloats out to 160 lbs, his risk goes up by an order of magnitude. But that's not twice the risk. It's ten times the risk. The extra 10 lbs isn't all that noticeable on this guy--but his prostate is in far more danger because of it.

Much research suggests that excessive accumulation of fat at specific body sites may be an important health risk factor. For instance, it appears that extra fat around the abdomen and waist is associated with higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hyperlipidemia. Individuals who accumulate a lot of fat around the waist (apple-shaped) are worse off than those who tend to accumulate fat in the thighs and buttocks (pear-shaped). The apple-shaped pattern of fat deposition is more commonly seen in men; whereas women tend to be pear-shaped. Source:[ ].

Body fat can also be too low. If a man's body fat is less than 3 percent, his health may be compromised because normal, healthy functioning requires some fat. He may become more susceptible to illness or experience chronic fatigue. This is one reason that you just do not see bodybuilders walking around looking the way they do for a contest. All of that calorie restriction and fat reduction is very temporary. Nor do you see professional basketball players and other elite athletes sporting ultra-low body fat levels.

A woman should have a minimum percent body fat of 13 to 17 percent for regular menstruation. If a woman's percent of body fat is too low, her periods may stop and she may experience infertility. Her menstrual irregularities may also compromise the health of her bones; normal hormonal function is necessary for bone health.

Women, and an increasing number of men with eating disorders can lose large amounts of fat. Being thin doesn't necessarily reduce one's health risk.

In fact, obsession with becoming thin often leads to serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Thinness simply refers to weighing less than the recommended values in age-height-weight tables. Leanness, on the other hand, refers to the muscle, bone, and fat composition of your body weight. Although some lean individuals may actually weigh more than their "tabled" ideal body weight, low body fat lessens the risk of health problems.

About the author: Cathy and her Doberman Trooper conduct research into all kinds of topics and produce articles like the one you see here. To contact Cathy, write to Get the facts from Cathy, and let the Cathy Factor give you an edge.


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