The Risks Of Low Body Fat Percentage
In order to look good and stay healthy, people seem to do whatever they can to lose fat. Numbers on a scale can sometimes deceive you, because muscles are heavier than fat. So focusing on body fat percent instead can show us just how far we have got to go.
If we are looking good, we will feel better, become healthier, and be more content, but the question is: when does it become too much? Body fat is there for a reason, and when we lose too much of it, it becomes a risk to our health.
WHAT IS THE IDEAL BODY FAT PERCENTAGE?
This is a tricky question, and the answer is not simple. The ideal percentage varies considerably for men and women and changes with age. The universal healthy amount of body fat for grown men is between 15 and 20%, and between 20 and 25% for women. Several percentages more or less is never a problem, but if a woman has more than 32%, and man more than 25% body fat, it is considered an increased risk of disease.
There are several ways to measure your body fat, but the most accurate one is skinfold testing. By using a caliper, a special tool, your doctor pinches different places on your body (chest, thighs, arms, abdominal region…) and measures the thickness of the fold.
HOW LOW IS TOO LOW?
Our bodies need fat: it keeps us alive and protects our internal organs. Essential body fat, which is the amount needed for maintenance of life, is around 13% for women and 3% for men.
Working hard to achieve body fat percentage lower than that can backfire and it represents a serious threat for a person’s health.
Our bodies need fat: it keeps us alive and protects our internal organs.
THE RISKS OF HAVING (TOO) LOW BODY FAT PERCENTAGE
Up to some degree, reducing body fat percentage will improve your health, but if it gets too low, it can lead to several health complications.
Your bones can become fragile, you dehydrate, get ill and there is potential loss of reproductive function. If this happens, your body will need a very long time to recover.
When a woman’s body fat drops too low their pituitary gland reduces the production of hormones which affects the ovaries, eventually even stopping the menstrual cycle. The medical complications of this are many and include problems with the heart, shrinkage of internal organs, loss of muscle tissue, stomach problems, shrinkage of internal organs, and damage to the nervous system. What is more (and the most dangerous), it can even lead to death.
BUT WHAT ABOUT PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES?
Athletes in general have lower body fat percent, because they have more muscle mass to begin with. Furthermore, lower levels of body fat are connected to improved performance, but when the percent is too low, it can actually decrease a person’s exercise performance.
Bodybuilders are a different category, they aim to have as little fat as possible, but only practice this at certain times, and not all year long. Moreover, they have to take supplements which ensures they keep getting all their nutrients while dieting and working out.
WORKING OUT AND KEEPING YOUR BODY FAT PERCENTAGE AT A HEALTHY LEVEL
If you are working out, eating and living healthy, it will certainly improve your overall health. When experiencing good results you become motivated to keep pushing yourself to work harder. But some people might go too far and thus may accidentally endanger their own health and end up with medical complications instead.
Make a meal plan and eat at regular intervals, if you like bike riding and running mind your knees and ankles and by taking joint supplements to protect them; and make sure you have a rest day at least once a week.
‘Eat clean, work mean, get lean’ are types of sayings that can motivate you to do great things, but you should still be careful not to go too far and end up with health problems instead. Staying healthy should be your number one priority when exercising and dieting. Knowing and keeping up with your personal range of body fat percentage plays a huge role in a healthier lifestyle.
How do you keep your body fat percentage healthy? Was this article helpful? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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ou can’t really claim that a certain level of vascularity is ‘unhealthy’. Everyone has differnt genetics therefore vascularity will differ from person to peron. Some may be very vascular at 10%bf while others will need to drop down to 6%bf.
Their are many possible health risks with maintain low bf. But you can maintain low bf 3% for a long period of time. Even going below 6% for long periods of time would not be advised.
At 3% you only have the fat surrounding your organs and spinal cord left.
At this level of bf you will get sick easily, bruise easily, nose bleeds, feel lighheaded, short term memory loss…basically feel like shit. And if your a woman your menstraul cycle is non-existant.
Thank you for this additional info Louis! Do you maybe have a scientific article backing your claims? Would be an interesting read! :) My visceral fat is fluctuating between 1% and 2%.. And menstrual cycle all healthy! Looking forward hearing from you. Happy day! x
This is a very sensible perspective on a dangerous trend in fitness. I find it sad that online fitness coaches almost all promote the ultra low fat image. The message is clear. If you are not shredded you are not cutting it, literally and metaphorically.
I used to be a competitive natural bodybuilder, as well as having been a sports physio for 30 years working with pro-athletes and I can say from personal experience that maintaining low single digit body fat (for men) is not a healthy state to be in for any length of time.
In my view there is a dangerous impression given that it is possible or desirable to do this because what people project online through Instagram and YouTube is easy to manipulate to produce a distorted idea of what is realistic or desirable.
Given the trolling people are likely to get if they do go online without looking extremely cut up, no one putting themselves out there is going to do it without heavily prepping themselves which most likely includes using strategies like carb-loading, fasting, diuretics (natural or chemical) and lots of pre-filming pumping up, shaving, oiling and tanning. These sorts of strategies as well external things such as clever lighting can give the impression of very low body fat if you know how to manipulate them effectively. Perception becomes reality.
Added to which you have no idea what people actually do in terms of supplementation and other chemical support. All this makes it very dangerous to take what you see online too literally as a guide for how to be healthy.
As you rightly say bodybuilders do lower their body fat to ridiculous levels for very short periods of time prior to competition but this is not sustainable for more than a few days at a time and as a natural bodybuilder you can’t do it very often in a year. The effects of the dieting you have to do to get there are so severe that in the run up to a competition you lose a lot of strength, feel like crap and on the day you feel absolutely terrible. If you are not careful your electrolytes can be completely messed up and you will suffer unbelievably painful cramps during posing. I’ve seen people come off stage and go into a complete flexor spasm in screaming agony.
All pro bodybuilders (the ones you see in magazines) do their photoshoots around competition time but the pictures might come out at different times of the year which gives the impression they maintain that condition for much longer. It’s an illusion. The same for fitness models.
Very low body fat is extremely popular with online bodyweight training advocates but again it is possible to make 12% look like 8% if you know what you are doing and if you pump up right. I watched a video by a popular online calisthenics trainer the other day and he actually (accidentally) admitted that he hardly eats anything in the 24 hours before he shoots a video so that he can project a smaller waist and it helps him get a bit more vascularity. Easy to do if you are at low teens body fat normally and know how to manipulate your carbs. This just tells you that if you see someone online who looks completely shredded to the bone they are only like that sometimes.
There are very few publicly available studies about athletes’ body fat but one that is available online is a 1983 NIH study of 528 male olympic athletes and 298 female olympic athletes in the competition cycle published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. In the study lowest body fat among men was amongst sprinters (100m, 200m) and marathon runners. Both were around 6.4% +/- 1.2%. What’s interesting is that these are athletes performing at the peak of their sport and yet they are holding higher levels of body fat than many fitness gurus promote. In other sports in the study like swimming body fat levels were up towards 12-13% amongst male athletes, higher for female athletes. What this should tell people is that ultra low body fat is not a predictor of athletic performance. It may be relevant to certain sports or a byproduct of the training methodology but rarely is it as extreme as what is promoted in the fitness industry these days. As any bodybuilder cutting up for competition will testify – dieting down to mid to low single digits is debilitating from an athletic point of view not to mention the effects it as on your immune system. Even at less extreme body fat levels other pro-athletes preparing for competition would hardly ever characterise what they do as healthy. They get injured a lot, they get sick easily and have to coordinate their whole lives around trying to avoid both while maintaining competitive performance levels. It’s very very hard.
So why has ultra low body fat become such a sought after thing?
Personally, after a life time of training and competing and working with athletes, I feel it is far far more sensible to step back from this obsession with ultra lean body image and focus more on athletic performance and healthy lifestyle. Men are fine and can still look extremely athletic at 12-18%. Women proportionately higher.