Body Fat Basics from NYC Registered Dietitian

It’s the New Year, and we’re two weeks into resolution territory. Many people have declared war on their pantries and, sadly, their bodies.

As much as I love the idea of making healthier food and lifestyle choices, I hate the extremism of the language and messaging of a billion-dollar diet industry that perpetuates the message that we are too “something” (usually fat) and absolutely not enough.

The idea that body fat should be the first to go is one that pervades much of our resolution thinking. It takes a very complex idea – body fat – and reduces it to something as simple as “this is bad.” This is problematic. As Andrew Schaeffer states In Defense of Body Fat, “There is of course still such a thing as having too much body fat. However, all too often losing body fat is viewed as always positive. This is an oversimplification. Body fat is not, contrary to popular opinion, bad by default.”

So how do we reconcile the fat mythology and drive to be lean – again driven by the billion-dollar industry – with maintaining a healthy body and body image? We get informed. So, today, I’m going to share some body fat basics with you: why we have body fat; why it’s important to have body fat; and how much body fat we should have (which is the million-dollar question).



Not all fats are the same.

Our bodies have many kinds of fat, each with a different function. Without getting too technical, it’s important to understand that some fats are essential for storing energy for later use, hormone function (estrogen, leptin, insulin, cortisol, and growth hormone), reproductive health, temperature regulation, vitamin absorption, among other things. Fats are found everywhere in our bodies – head to toe. (Well, probably not TOO much in our toes).

Essential fats are found in the brain, bone marrow, around organs, and nerves. Subcutaneous fat is stored under our skin (just as its name implies.) Pinch your side or under your arm. That’s subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is our belly fat. It’s pretty important, as it is the white fat that surrounds all major organs.

Basically, our bodies need fat.


How much fat should you have?

There is no magic number, magic percentage. A lot of people stick to this 12% – 25% range, relegating anyone who has over 25% to the “obesity category”. But, as Schaeffer explains, “these numbers are actually based on a misinterpretation of a World Health Organization technical report from all the way back in 1995. According to researchers who raised the alarm, the WHO technical report in question was actually referring to a Swedish study that reported average body fat measurements of middle-aged Swedes. The WHO never proposed these numbers as some kind of cut-off point with regards to defining obesity.”

Not all bodies are the same. And we seem to forget that. It’s easy to do when we’re bombarded with images of lithe models photoshopped to “perfection” on magazine covers. Moreover, we’re flooded with messages like this (what I gleaned from a quick google search – body fat resolutions):

Personal Trainer Reveals How You Can Drop Your Body Fat in One Week
Super-Intense New Year’s Resolution Weight Loss Miracle
5 Weight Loss Findings from 2018 That Could Help You Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Uff. What your body needs depends on … everything. How much body fat you should have depends on your age, gender, and physical/athletic needs. The idea that all athletes need to be lean and fit is erroneous. Heavyweight athletes need more fat – lots more – than marathon runners. Though it seems obvious, it’s not the messaging we’re receiving. We constantly read and hear the refrain: fat is bad.

Too much fat is bad. That amount of “too much”, though, depends on each individual body.

In our drive for a no-fat body, we’re completely dismissing the importance of fats and how they play a critical part of the bigger picture. Our bodies are machines that need a balance of everything, including fats. But let’s not get carried away. It’s not about eating a dozen donuts and hailing praise to fats!

So, what’s the takeaway?

  1. Everybody, regardless of size or shape, will be healthier by making good nutrition choices and exercising. Period.
  2. Excess fat can be harmful. Just as too little fat can be harmful.
  3. Assessing how your weight impacts your health should be a discussion between you and your personal healthcare provider. Every body’s needs are different. You can’t rely on random numbers.
  4. Change our language – especially when we’re talking in front of children. Shift the conversation from weight and “fat” to health.
  5. Develop a positive relationship with food and exercise.

Stay informed. Don’t get sucked into the fads and memes. And, always, be healthy.

Happy 2020! I’m so glad to be back.