By Sherry Torkos, Pharmacist and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine
With the worldwide obesity epidemic, many individuals are searching for ways to lose weight and keep it off. While the focus is often on total body weight, it is actually excess body fat that represents the real health threat. Thus it is important to understand the role that body fat plays in health and disease and how to achieve a healthy level of body fat.
Overweight or Obese
An individual’s body weight or body composition reflects the level of lean body mass (tissue, bone and muscle) and body fat. While the words obese and overweight are used synonymously there is a great difference between these terms in both definition and associated health risk.
Overweight is defined as a body weight above an acceptable weight in relation to height. This term can be misleading because it does not distinguish between excess body fat and lean muscle mass. For example, it is possible to be overweight without being obese. A body-builder would be an example of this scenario. Having a greater proportion of muscle mass would make this individual appear overweight according to standard weight/height charts, yet this person could have low body fat and be in good physical shape.
The body mass index (BMI) is commonly used to determine whether one’s weight represents health risk. BMI is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared (kg/m2). A BMI of over 25 kg.m2 indicates overweight. When percentage of body fat is used, women with 25.1 to 29.9 percent and men with 20.1 to 24.4 percent are considered to be overweight.
Obesity is defined as having excess body fat in relation to lean body mass. By generally accepted standards, men with greater than 25 percent, and women with more than 30 percent body fat, are considered to be obese. When the BMI is used, individuals with a value of greater than 30 are considered to be obese.
Since it is excess fat (not excess weight) that is a health concern, when assessing your overall fitness level it is important to look at the percentage of your body that is composed of fat, rather than just total body weight.
Factors Affecting Body Fat
There are many factors that regulate your level of body fat, including:
- Activity level
- Basal metabolic rate (rate at which calories are burned at rest)
- Hormones, such as insulin, thyroid, and growth hormone
Health Risks of Excess Body Fat
Carrying excess body fat is linked to some of our greatest health threats, namely heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The greater the degree obesity – the greater the health risk. Conversely, maintaining a lean, healthy body can help to reduce your risk of developing these diseases.
Obesity is a known risk factor for developing heart disease. The excess body fat creates an increased workload and stress to the heart, leading to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and enlarging of the heart. Obese people also tend to have high cholesterol levels, making them more prone to arteriosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries caused by buildup of plaque. This condition can become life threatening if vital organs such as the brain, heart or kidneys are deprived of blood.
Excess body fat can also increase one’s risk of developing cancer. The American Cancer Society has published a report illustrating the relationship between obesity and cancer mortality. Based on the observed association, the American Cancer Society estimated that current patterns of overweight and obesity in the United States could account for up to 14% of all cancer deaths in men and 20% in women.
Obese men are more likely than non-obese men to die from cancer of the colon, rectum, or prostate. Obese women are more likely than non-obese women to die from cancer of the gallbladder, breast, uterus, cervix, or ovaries.
There is also a strong link between obesity and diabetes. Excess body fat can lead to the development of a condition called insulin resistance, where the body no longer responds properly to the insulin that it produces. As a result, insulin is not able to bring glucose into the cell and blood sugar levels remain high. The pancreas responds to this by producing more insulin, which the body can’t use, so insulin levels are also elevated. This scenario of high insulin and high blood sugar levels are hallmark features of Type 2 diabetes. Developing diabetes increases the risk of developing other health problems, such as kidney and eye disease, and circulatory problems.
Being obese can also make the most simplest body process – breathing – a challenging feat. For an obese individual it takes more energy to breathe because the heart has to work harder to pump blood to the lungs and throughout the body. This can also lead to elevated blood pressure and stress to the body. Excess body fat is also linked to gall bladder disease, gastro-intestinal disease, sexual dysfunction, osteoarthritis, and stroke. The emotional consequences of obesity can be just as serious – low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
Body Fat Distribution – Apples versus Pears
Just as the degree of obesity is important in determining health risk, so is the location of the fat. The “apple” shaped body, which is defined by abdominal fatness or ‘pot belly’, has been found to predispose an individual to Type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, and early mortality. In fact, waist circumference measurements have been shown to be a better predictor of health risk than the body mass index (BMI).
Increased risk – waist more than 94 cm (38 inches)
Substantially increased risk – waist more than 102 cm (40 inches)
Increased risk – waist more than 80 cm (32 inches)
Substantially increased risk – waist more than 88 cm (35 inches)
Men in particular often deposit weight in the waist region, whereas women tend to gain weight around the hips and buttocks giving them the “pear” shape.” Fat deposited primarily around the hips and buttocks does not carry the same risk as that gained around the mid-section.
The tendency to deposit fat around the mid-section is influenced by a number of factors including genetics and lifestyle choices. Physical activity, avoiding smoking and using unsaturated fat over saturated fat have been shown to decrease the risk of developing abdominal obesity.
Recommended Levels of Body Fat
An individual’s body fat is expressed as a percentage of body weight that is made up of fat. This percentage varies for men and for women and with age.
All of us require some stored body fat for fueling energy and cushioning. If the body has too little fat, it will begin to break down muscle tissue for energy requirements.
Below are recommended body fat ranges for women and men according to the American Dietetics Association:
Normal 15-25 %
Overweight 25.1-29.9 %
Obese Over 30 %
Normal 10-20 %
Overweight 20.1-24.4 %
Obese Over 25 %
Checking your Body Fat Level
Height and weight tables, such as the body mass index (BMI) are commonly used to determine how a person’s weight compares to a standard. This method is easy to do since it involves simple measures of height and weight, yet because it does not distinguish between the proportions of body fat and lean tissue it is not the most accurate method of assessing one’s health risk due to excess body fat.
Here are some methods that can be used to determine your body fat percentage:
Skin Fold Calipers – measures the thickness of subcutaneous fat at various locations on the body. The measurements obtained are used in special equations to obtain an estimated percent fat value. This method is not very accurate and is dependant upon the skills and judgment of the person performing the test
Bioelectric Impedance – a machine is used to measure an electric signal as it passes through lean body mass and fat. The higher the fat content the greater the resistance to the current. This method is more effective than skin fold caliper testing, but is not 100%.
Near Infrared Technology – infrared light is shined on to the skin (usually bicep area). Fat absorbs the light, while lean body mass reflects the lights back. The reflected light is measured by a special sensor, transmitted into the computer, and translated into percentage of body fat. This method is highly accurate – comparable to underwater weighing but slightly more expensive that the above two methods.
DEXA – stands for dual energy X-ray absorptiometry –uses two X-ray energies to measure body fat, muscle, and bone mineral. This method is highly accurate but also the most expensive and time consuming.
Health Benefits of a Lean Body
Having a lean body is important for overall health and longevity. Our body composition impacts how we look and how we feel. When we are physically fit we feel better about ourselves, have more energy and enjoy better well being. Conversely, carrying excess fat can have a negative impact on our self-esteem, confidence, and body image. It can also cause fatigue and lethargy, making the simplest of tasks, such as going up a flight of stairs, difficult and exhausting.
Numerous studies have found that those who maintain a lean body live longer, suffer less disease and enjoy a better quality of life. It is important to know that even small losses can lead to great health rewards. Studies have found that losing even 10-15% of excess weight (fat) can help to reduce blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides.
Lifestyle Recommendations for a Lean Body
While nutritional supplements can be very helpful, healthy eating and regular physical exercise form the foundation of a successful, long-term weight management and fat loss program.
Below are some nutritional tips to consider for healthy fat loss:
- Eat at least three meals a day, preferably four to five small meals to keep your metabolism and energy level optimized. Do not skip meals as this can raise your appetite, deplete your energy levels and lead to binge eating.
- When you are hungry between meals, snack on healthful foods, such as fruit, yogurt, raw vegetables, nuts and seeds.
- Emphasize fresh, unprocessed foods. Low-fat/low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods are your best dietary choices. These include fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and whole grains. Cut down on processed and refined foods, such as fast food, junk food, white bread/rice/pasta, candy, cookies and sweets. Refined grains lack nutritional value because their outer fiber-rich layer is stripped away during the refinement. Processed food and junk food should be looked upon as providing “empty calories” because these foods are often high in sugar and calories but very low in nutritional value.
- Limit your intake of saturated and hydrogenated fats. Fat fills you up more slowly than other foods because it takes longer to metabolize and absorb from the gastrointestinal tract. The feeling of fullness (satiety) is delayed causing you to eat more. Less chewing is required, so these fatty foods are consumed quickly. Furthermore, fat is more calorie-dense, providing nine calories per gram, compared to only four calories per gram provided by protein and carbohydrates.
- Ensure adequate protein intake. Protein is essential for building and maintaining lean muscle mass. Without adequate protein intake, dieting and exercise can cause the body to burn muscle for fuel and this can result in a lowering of your basal metabolic rate – the rate at which you burn calories. The recommended amount of protein is based on body weight and activity level. For the average person, this amount is 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram, or one-half gram per pound of body weight.
- Fill up on fiber. Dietary fiber is a powerful asset to anyone trying to lose body fat. Dietary fiber helps balance blood sugar and insulin levels and improves digestion and elimination. Fiber also makes us feel more full with meals because it slows digestion. Most health agencies recommend 25 to 35 g of fiber per day. Plant foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes, are excellent sources of natural fiber. Fiber is also available in supplemental form, such as powders and tablets.
- If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Alcohol floods the body with empty calories. Depending on the beverage, it provides anywhere from 20 to 124 calories per ounce.
- Cut down on salt and sodium. Most of the sodium in the typical diet comes from the saltshaker and processed foods. A high-sodium diet is unhealthy and causes fluid retention, meaning it can contribute to water weight gain.
Consistent exercise promotes the loss of body fat in several ways:
- Increased energy expenditure – Exercise or physical activity burns calories and stored fat.
- After burn – Your basal metabolic rate is heightened for four to 24 hours after vigorous physical activity, especially weight lifting or anaerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise, such as running or aerobics, typically boosts your metabolism for 60 minutes. It’s important to combine both cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, biking and anaerobic exercise such as weight lifting to achieve and maintain optimum results, and more importantly, keep the results.
- Increased lean body mass – Exercise is critical for building and maintaining strong, healthy muscles and muscle burns more calories than any other part of the body. Increasing lean muscle mass helps the body to utilize fat more efficiently as fuel. Dieting without exercise can actually undermine your weight loss efforts by leading to loss of muscle mass along with fat. When this happens metabolism slows down and your burn less calories.
- Balancing blood sugar – Exercise pulls stored calories, or energy, in the forms of glucose and fat out of tissues. In this way, blood glucose levels stay balanced and you are less likely to feel hungry.
Nutritional Supplements to Aid Fat Loss
Healthy eating and exercise are the foundation to a successful, long-lasting fat-loss program. However, certain nutritional supplements, when used properly, can be helpful in supporting your program. Below are my top recommended supplements to aid fat loss.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (Tonalin®)
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a naturally occurring fatty acid found most abundantly in beef and dairy fats. Research has found that supplements of CLA can be helpful in reducing body fat while maintaining or increasing lean muscle mass. Specifically CLA acts to stimulate the breakdown of stored fat in the fat cells, reduce the number of existing fat cells, and prevent fat storage.
In a recent clinical trial, overweight subjects taking Tonalin® CLA for one year, without changing their diet and exercise habits, had a 9% reduction in body fat and a 2% increase in lean body mass compared to the placebo group.6
Several additional studies lasting from 4 weeks to 6 months have shown that Tonalin® CLA is effective in reducing body fat compared to placebo groups. Based on the clinical studies, the recommended dosage of Tonalin® CLA is 3.4 grams per day. The product is very well tolerated. No significant adverse events have been reported.
As one of the most popular beverages consumed worldwide, green tea is known for its benefits for heart health, cancer protection, weight loss, and much more
Green tea contains a number of beneficial compounds including volatile oils, vitamins, minerals, caffeine, and potent antioxidants called polyphenols. Research has shown that green tea can facilitate weight loss by increasing thermogenesis – the rate at which the body burns calories. This was initially attributed to its caffeine content, however recent studies have shown that this is due to an interaction between its high content of polyphenols, specifically the catechin epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) along with caffeine.7-9
Most studies documenting the health benefits of green tea have involved 3 to 10 cups per day. Tablets and capsules are available. Look for a product that is standardized for total polyphenol content and/or catechin concentrations. Most products provide 60% to 97% polyphenols and/or EGCG.
There are no serious side effects known, even with intakes of as much as 20 cups per day. Since it contains some caffeine, higher doses may cause restlessness, insomnia, and increased heart rate.
Hydroxycitric acid (HCA) is a compound derived from the fruit Garcinia cambogia, which is native to South and Southeast Asia. HCA has been popular as a weight loss supplement for years. It appears that HCA supports weight loss by reducing appetite, enhancing the breakdown of fat and inhibiting fat storage without affecting the central nervous system. There may be other benefits as well as newer research has found that it can reduce cholesterol and triglycerides.
No serious side effects have been reported with HCA. While earlier studies found benefits in dosages around 1200 to 1500 mg HCA daily, newer research supports greater benefits at a higher dosage, such as 2800 mg per day.
Phase 2® ® Standardized White Kidney Bean Extract
Phase 2® ® is an extract of the white kidney bean that promotes weight loss by temporarily neutralizing starches from the diet. It inhibits the action of an enzyme called alpha-amylase – the enzyme responsible for breaking down starches into sugar. Foods high in starch include bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and baked goods. Over-consumption of these foods (larger portion sizes) and physical inactivity can lead to weight gain. In several clinical studies Phases 2® has been shown to reduce the amount of sugar absorbed from starchy meals and promote fat loss.
In a study conducted in Italy, overweight individuals taking Phase 2® ® lost an average of 6.45 pounds of body fat after a 30-day study period. Another study conducted at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center, UCLA found those given Phase 2® ® lost an average of 4 pounds of body fat after 8 weeks, experienced an average 26-point drop in triglycerides, and had more energy. The recommended dosage is 1000 to 1500 mg before starchy meals.
Keep in mind that the bathroom scale only tells you how much you weigh. It does not tell you what your body composition is, or whether you are carrying excess fat. In fact, if you are exercising, losing body fat and gaining lean muscle mass it is possible that you may notice either no change in the scale or even a slight increase in weight initially. While you will be improving your level of fitness, your total body weight may not change. Weighing yourself on a scale tells you very little about your health and should not be relied upon as a measure of success.
Here are some simple/easy ways to measure your progress and success:
- Look in the mirror – take an honest look at your body in the mirror. As you lose body fat and gain lean muscle you will notice your shape change. Your muscles will become more prominent and there will be less flabby areas.
- Evaluate how you look and feel – as you lose body fat you will feel lighter, have more energy and generally feel better about yourself.
- Judge how your clothes fit – as you lose body fat you will notice that your clothes feel more loose and fit better.
- Check your percentage of body fat – using the above-mentioned methods.
Carrying excess body fat is a known risk factor for many chronic health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and psychological issues. Knowing your percentage of body fat is the best way to determine if you are at risk. To achieve a healthy body composition, proper diet and regular exercise are essential. Nutritional supplements such as CLA, green tea, hydroxycitric acid and Phase 2® can provide a supportive role by reducing body fat storage, enhancing fat breakdown, boosting metabolism and neutralizing starches. Monitoring body fat levels with the above mentioned methods will help to guide progress and keep you on track in maintaining a lean body.