The Official Newsletter of
September 23, 2001

How to get a handle on your fat

by Wallace Immen, Medical Reporter, The Globe and Mail

Originally printed in the Globe and Mail September 10, 1977 

Fitness fanatics determined to become "lean and mean"— or "ripped to the bone"—frequently want to know one important thing about their bodies: the fat-to-muscle ratio. And the best way to come up with that figure—from calipers that gauge flab at the midsection to costly computerized tests involving electric impulses—is a very hot topic in health clubs and exercise magazines these days.

The fad springs from research that says increasing the percentage of lean tissue in your body is extremely important to your health. Studies of heart disease and diabetes show a statistically greater risk of developing problems if fat accounts for more than about 15 per cent of a man's body weight and 22 per cent of a woman's.

Some methods employed in determining the lean-fat balance can be extremely complex.

Scientific research on athletes relies on hydrostatic weighing, a technique that goes back to the ancient Greeks. A subject is seated in a chair attached to a scale and then suspended over a tank of water. The person is told to exhale and is dunked. The difference between the body's weight in air and water is used to calculate its density and then the amount of fat.

However, all this is so complicated (and uncomfortable) that several expensive new approaches are being touted…

One is known as electrical impedance measurement. Electrodes are attached to a person's arms and feet and then a small electrical current is sent through the body…

A second test uses a beam of infrared light from a fibre-optic cable placed on the skin…

Another approach, known as DEXA, measures bone density by means of a very-low-powered X-ray device…

The final option is inexpensive but, according to personal trainer Ron Brown, still acts as a good far monitor: a tape measure around the waist.

Mr. Brown, of Kitchener, Ont., is the author of The Body Fat Guide, which includes tables that translate girth and weight into fat ratio to within a fraction of a pound (fitness experts haven't yet gone metric).

Let's look at Marilyn Monroe as an example. If press agents are to be believed, she had a 23.5-inch waist and weighed 118 pounds, which the charts show translates to 9.4 per cent body fat. If she gained three inches on her belt size [as well as losing 12 pounds of muscle; Ron Brown], her body fat would have been 20 per cent.

Mr. Brown calculates that every quarter-inch you add or lose around the middle represents about one pound of fat. For instance, the charts show that a man who weighs 200 pounds and is 40 inches around the waist (at navel height) has 25.59 per cent fat, which represents 51 pounds of flab. If he cuts sown to a 38-inch waist, he'll have only 21.44 per cent body fat, a total of 42 pounds.

To Mr. Brown, crash diets are the wrong way to improve the ratio. Muscle…contains 75 per cent water, compared to 25 per cent for fat. In a crash diet, muscle breaks down…and the source of most of the weight loss is the reduction of water in the body.

To get at the fat, continue to eat normally but at each meal count up the number of calories you eat and figure out your total daily calorie intake.

After that, cut down the number of calories you take at each meal. Reducing your intake by 500 calories a day equals 3,500 calories a week, the amount of calories in one pound of fat. And each pound of fat lost will trim your waist by a quarter of an inch.

You can also burn off fat with low-intensity activities such as walking for long periods of time. And you can build muscle with high-intensity activity that challenges muscles to go beyond their ordinary level.

But you can carry all this advice to extremes, and Mr. Brown—who once became anorexic in pursuit of low body fat—points out that just because a little weight loss is good, a lot may not be better. [When following prolonged unbalanced diets...], the female menstrual cycle is affected, muscle building is reduced and growth and development can stop in children.

And you can't reduce fat indefinitely. While computers can calculate that theoretically a 200-pound man could be at 2.77 per cent fat if he got his waist size down to 29 inches, reality dictates that no one can safely go below about 3 per cent. At least that much is needed to keep the body's organs functioning.


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