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Bodyfat vs Muscle – How a culture of fat-shaming needs to change

12% is 12%… but what about weight?

The aim of this blog is to make you think about the culture of fat shaming. Think about the fitness world we live in; think about the message our clients and health club members are hearing; and think about our interpretation of both scale weight, and bodyfat.

Let’s get into it.

Objectives for Exercise

Many clients sign up to a PT in order to ‘lose some weight’, or ‘get a little leaner’. In fact, weight loss is one of, if not *the* most common goal related to exercise. 

That’s right. Health benefits such as heart health, normalising blood pressure, stabilising cholesterol, increasing energy levels, elevating performance, and enjoying more vitality pale in comparison to the almighty set of scales when it comes to exercise aspirations.

And I suppose this is absolutely fine, in theory. 

For example, if we have a clinically obese client who’s aim is to lose weight, then of course all of the other health benefits mentioned are likely to be to some degree realised as a by-product. 

However, the pressure we live under today – whether it’s a culture of aesthetic or sports performance – means that it isn’t always those who are overweight, let alone obese, who have the desire to lose weight. Or rather, ‘body fat’. And this is where it gets a little tricky.

The Science of Body Composition

So, let’s breakdown what we are largely composed of. We have:

  • Muscle
  • Fat
  • Bone and connective tissue
  • Water

Each of these components makes up a proportion of your body. In an ideal world, the bodyfat proportion is at a reasonable level so that it doesn’t negatively impact your health.

When we embark on a weight loss journey with a client, there are two things that need to be addressed to ensure success. These are exercise and nutrition. 

If we focus solely on exercise, the client may perform better in any given squat, sprint or lunge. But, if their diet is sub-par, it won’t particularly improve their body composition overall.

At the same time, if all they do is eat better and forgo the exercise, they may lose some weight, but much of this weight loss will be muscle tissue. Not fat tissue.

It’s a delicate balance to get right. 

Maintaining Muscle, Decreasing Bodyfat

Muscle is an ‘expensive’ tissue for the body to maintain. It uses a lot of calories throughout the day. It’s why Michael Phelps was consuming 12,000 calories a day during his training for the Olympics. 

So if we don’t exercise in a manner that dictates a ‘need’ to maintain or grow muscle mass, we will likely sacrifice some of this tissue.

And when we sacrifice muscle tissue, our metabolic rate decreases as a by-product. This means you burn less calories at rest than you used to. Therefore, maintaining muscle is one of your best defences against gaining bodyfat percentages. 

However, this scenario provides a bit of short-term trickery. When losing muscle tissue, the weighing scale might suggest we’ve lost weight, but we may have actually negatively impacted our metabolic processes. 

Once this happens over time, this can lead to future bodyfat increase, and subsequently the scales will begin to read a higher figure again. However, this time, the body composition has increased in bodyfat percentage, even though overall you’ve lost weight since you’ve first started.

This is a difficult concept to grasp, especially for those new to exercise.

The overwhelming message is that body composition is more important than actual scale weight. But it doesn’t stop there. There is another side to this coin, one that is potentially more damaging, particularly psychologically.

Challenging Perceptions of Bodyfat

We all know those people who seem to be able to eat and drink whatever they like without gaining a pound, or their performance in exercise suffering. If that’s you, then kudos to you.

Let’s make it clear: your bodyfat levels, assuming they are in the healthy range, are largely genetically determined and have a natural homeostatic range that they exist within. 

To disturb this can be very difficult when they are in the healthy range. It’s even harder to alter this when they are in the lower range as the body does need some fat.

For anyone looking to lose weight, my hope is that this fact can be taken into consideration on an individual level  I previously mentioned two cultures of exercise and let’s look at the example of Elite Sports. 

There can still be a ‘fat-shaming’ culture, even in sports at the highest level. 

Most professional athletes will never be accused of being overweight but you have to remember that this is relative. Their field is a little different to the general public, and your measurements are really only able to be judged against your peers – other athletes.

A few years ago, the wider world was introduced to the idea of athletic performance and its relationship to bodyfat, by the advent of strict protocols for basketball players from the Miami Heat, for reporting to preseason training above the strict limits of the club. 

The now famous ‘Heat Culture’ can be accused of fat-shaming behaviour, and there exists a fine line here. On the one hand if a player lives on a poor diet, doesn’t do the work required to maintain a healthy weight and their performance suffers as a result, then there is an argument that they are not fulfilling their job role. 

However, a few paragraphs ago we discussed the idea that to a certain degree a healthy person’s bodyfat may be impacted by a genetic predisposition. There may be no impact on performance, the player may be fit by every metric available, and yet they may hold 2-3% more bodyfat than the team’s Sports Scientist demands.

Demanding this player ‘lose weight’ in order to satisfy the team’s base levels may lead to undereating, poor nutritional quality, and weight loss. The team may be satisfied with the players body composition, but this doesn’t mean performance will increase – or possibly even sustain.

Getting the Balance Right

Clearly, not all people looking to lose weight are professional athletes, but we are all human beings made of the same things. Fundamentally, if you value exercise performance, you need to eat to support your goals. 

You can absolutely decrease bodyfat while doing so. But beating yourself up over a couple of percentage points if you are in the healthy range can lead to more damaging issues, such as a negative relationship with food, with exercise, and if you’re in sports, a decrease in your performance.

Basketball, and the Heat are far from alone in implementing these kinds of strict measures on their players, and the culture of naming, shaming, and punishing players who are otherwise performing well is an area of concern psychologically. 

So for anyone in a similar position to the Miami Heat players, I would initially ask the question ‘do you need a 6-pack to perform well in your sport?’ 

You could even argue that in some sports, or at least some positions in some sports, a little more physical weight will help performance. Consider a football player for a moment. In most cases I would prefer a player to be 80kg with 12% bodyfat than a player who is 70kg with 12% bodyfat. 

The additional weight is a worthwhile trade-off, even with the relative increase in bodyfat, if they are able to hold their ground, shield the ball, and win the physical battles they will face each game.

Food for thought

My question to all clients embarking on a weight loss journey is this – Why? What is the reason for the desired weight loss? 

I will never oppose someone who wants to improve their body image and like what they see in the mirror more. If you’ve always been a little overweight and want to feel better about yourself, I will fully support that of course. But this is a slightly different ‘kettle of fish’ to what the core of this blog has been about.

The purpose of this post was to simply make you think…

Why do we place such a premium on weight loss? Are we chasing an ideal that is unattainable, and intimately unsustainable?

Does weight loss really translate to a healthier body? Obviously in many cases this absolutely is true, but in cases where the client is already in a healthy range?

Do we simplify the idea that weight loss, or fat loss will increase performance? Is there another side to this coin?

And what damage are we doing to people psychologically when seeking weight loss over other performance metrics in the healthy population.

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