It’s no secret. The UK is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. A quarter of adults were obese in 2011, compared with 15 per cent in 1993. We’re becoming less active as a nation, the portion sizes of many supermarket products have increased, and obesity could cost the UK more than £50 billion by 2050. Perversely we’re also very image conscious and aspire to the physiques and figures of others, particularly celebrities.
But what is the ideal? What weight or percentage of body fat should we aspire to? And what can we do to help ourselves?
The short answer is that the concept of ‘an ideal’ is a myth because we are individuals. Body fat is affected by a person’s ethnicity and their frame. The result is that we all carry body fat differently.
Morphology vs BMI
We used to think of this in very black and white terms, which is when we used body mass index, or BMI exclusively, as an assessment of a person’s height compared with their weight. But what we’ve found is that BMI is imprecise. It doesn’t take into account a person’s muscle mass or body frame. Quite simply, it is possible for someone who is in excellent physical health and shape, like an athlete or regular gym goer to be categorised as obese, and a person with significant amounts of dangerous abdominal fat to be labelled as lean. What we focus on now is a person’s morphology, or body shape, for which there are three main types – mesomorph (muscular), ectomorph (slim) and endomorph (what might be described as ‘curvy’). And this is why it’s difficult to have a single ideal for body fat percentage. Body shape is affected by ethnicity and by frame (whether we’re slim, medium or heavier build). And because morphology varies so widely, it’s impossible to define a ‘one size fits all’ body fat percentage. Morphology is also why different people carry fat in different places.
The dangers of ectopic fat
Actually, the concept of an ideal body fat percentage is a red herring. Up to 40 per cent of people with conditions like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and increased waist circumference have normal body mass indexes. What we should be talking about is the types of fat we carry. Everyone should be aware of ectopic fat, which can have major health implications. Ectopic quite literally means ‘where it isn’t supposed to be’, so you can get an idea of why it is dangerous, particularly if it builds up in the heart, liver and even the pancreas.
Ectopic fat can be estimated more accurately by measuring a person’s waist – all the more reason to think about body shape before an ideal body fat percentage. Research proves that waist measurement helps significantly in identifying ectopic fat and predicting possible health consequences such as diabetes. As the highly respected Dr Aseem Malhotra, a cardiology specialist registrar, has said, a number of studies have revealed that if a woman’s waist to hip ratio is 0.85 greater than the ratio determined by the World Health Organisation – or 1.0 in the case of men – it represents a marker for increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, many types of cancer and abnormal cholesterol.
How to prevent ectopic fat and maintain a healthy weight
The answer to maintaining a healthy weight is no surprise. We can make sure we’re living healthily in terms of diet and hydration (which is often overlooked). You’re better off, for example, going for whole fruit (with the exception of grapes and watermelon that have high levels of glucose) than fruit juices that can be full of sugar and lacking in fibre. The other thing of course is to be physically active. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean scheduled exercise – although exercise is certainly good for you. It means taking the opportunities in everyday life to move, whether that involves walking the dog, walking to work or tending the garden. It’s all physical exertion and will help your health.
This page was last reviewed on 5th November 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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