One of the most satisfying parts of my job is the moment a client learns their body fat percentage. The number reflects one’s body composition, or the proportion of fat cells relative to lean muscle mass, water, blood cells and everything else in the body.
After they get their results from Medcan’s Annual Health Assessment, many clients focus on body fat percentage as the key figure to improve. They work hard on preventive health during the year. Then they come in and step onto our InBody 770, which sends non-harmful electrical impulses through one’s tissues to assess composition based on measured electrical resistance. The machine supplies the readout—and the number is down a few percentage points from last year. Their hard work is rewarded—they’re healthier, but probably look and feel better, too.
The graph below offers a more comprehensive explanation of body fat percentage, and some best practices on how to decrease it:
Healthy range = light blue boxes
The average human body has approximately 37 trillion cells, of which a large proportion are fat. Fat cells store energy, make hormones and regulate the energy supply to the rest of the body. As demonstrated above, ideal body fat percentages are different for men and women. For reasons that have to do with hormones, procreation and evolution, women tend to have a higher body fat percentage than men. Consequently, their healthy range is different.
Easily accessible processed food, sedentary desk jobs and the proliferation of screen-based entertainment has caused many of us to have a higher-than-ideal body fat percentage. COVID has not had a consistent effect on this. In the absence of a commute, some people used the extra time to become more active and cook more healthy meals. Others streamed more entertainment and ate more junk food. The only consistent effect of COVID on body fat percentage is that for most people, the number changed. More than any other year in Medcan’s history, we have seen more people’s body fat percentage differ from their previous Annual Health Assessment, in either direction.
So if you’re looking to decrease your body fat percentage, different strategies will work for different people, but essentially, two main levers exist: Diet and exercise.
“To lose body fat, you have to create a calorie deficit and burn more calories than you consume,” says Leslie Beck, Medcan’s director of food and nutrition.
The easiest way to create a calorie deficit is to eat fewer calorie-dense foods, like sweets and chips. The closer you can shift your consumption pattern toward a Mediterranean-style diet, the better. Protein—from poultry and lean meat, dairy, and pulses like beans and lentils—is the macronutrient that helps build muscle mass. “If you’re cutting calories,” says Beck, “you really should try to eat more protein to counter the muscle-wasting effect of weight loss.”
How much is enough? According to Beck’s Eat Move Think conversation with protein expert Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., of McMaster University, the optimal amount is between 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. For a 150-pound adult, that amounts to about 90 grams of protein per day, or 30 grams of protein per meal. (Which is a lot—but remember, that’s the optimal amount. The greater point is that protein is important.)
Remember: Real food, including fruits, vegetables and other produce found at the perimeter of your grocery store, tends to have fewer calories and provides you with a better sense of fullness relative to pre-packaged goods found in interior aisles.
It’s harder to lose fat with exercise alone. That daily goal of 10,000 steps accounts for only 250 calories for a 150-pound adult. As we lose weight, our body’s resting metabolic rate decreases to hold onto other calories, but you can fight that trend by shifting more of your body weight proportionally to muscle. That’s where exercise is most effective: If you’re trying to decrease your body fat percentage, then you should engage in resistance training several times a week to build muscle mass, which will consume more calories relative to fat.
Remember: don’t swap cardio for resistance training; you need cardio for good heart health and overall well-being.
We can spend a lot of time worrying about how to optimize our diet and exercise routine, achieving the perfect Mediterranean eating pattern or the ideal mix of cardio and resistance-training. But the truth is, any improvement is going to affect your body fat percentage. Packing healthy homemade lunches, snacking less often in the evenings, and adding strength training to your exercise habits can help cut fat and improve muscle mass. A few percent in the right direction will help you look and feel better while creating a beneficial spiral that will improve everything from your LDL cholesterol to your waist-hip ratio. The important thing is to adopt changes that you can maintain for the long-term, because achieving a healthy lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint.
Book an Annual Health Assessment to learn more about your body fat percentage. For more information about our nutrition programs contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 416.862.1553 or find out about our fitness programs by emailing Medcan’s director of fitness, Stephen Salzmann at email@example.com.