Weight & body fat - the facts

David Haslam, chair of the National Obesity Forum, explains how we can maintain a healthy weight and why, when it comes to our measurements, one-size does not fit all...

Measuring tape around waist

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

Man on scale
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

Walking on pebble beach
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.

Now read...

How to lose weight and keep it off
10 common diet myths – busted
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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.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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9th Nov, 2019
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Christinapolly's picture
25th Feb, 2016
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30th Oct, 2015
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21st Jan, 2015
Thank god its not all about BMI. I hate BMI. Thank you for this post. Like reading it! http://www.TheVenusFactor2.com
27th Nov, 2014
much be helpful
11th Jul, 2014
It's great to finally see some recognition that the BMI is not a 'one fits all' measure. Thank you
jessybrain's picture
5th Jun, 2014
Thanks for clarifying the facts about weight loss and body fat. Determining percent body fat is very important because the amount of fat in someone's body is related to health as well as fitness and sports performance. In fact, everybody should have a clear idea about his or her body fat and then take steps for losing weight.
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