Which Is a Better Health Indicator – Body Weight or Body Composition?
Some of you, reading this, would know the answer to this question and it would be an obvious idea for many out there. But, here, I am raising this question to look at it in detail and to understand the related concepts.
In simplest terms possible, BMI (Body Mass Index) is your total weight divided by your height squared. Basically, BMI tells you the total weight of your body and tells you nothing about the proportional contribution of your muscle mass, fat mass, bone density, etc. to the total weight.
According to BMI, you might fall into one of the following categories, depending on the result of your weight divided by your height squared:
- Obese, if your BMI result is thirty or above
- Overweight, if your BMI result is twenty-five to twenty-nine
- Normal weight, if your BMI result is below twenty-five to 18.5
- Underweight, if you BMI result is below 18.5
Let’s take the example of an athlete who has an impressive muscle mass and weighs around 90 kilos (a normal weight for many athletes). If the athlete is five feet eleven inches (1.803 meters) tall, then his BMI result would be about 27.6 (90/1.803 squared). The number 27.6 means the athlete is overweight on BMI scale.
The human aesthetic eye will be able to see the athlete as ripped and shredded but the unaesthetic eye of BMI puts the same person in the overweight category (b above).
As a general measurement of weight, BMI might be useful in limited cases, but it gives zero indication of body composition of individuals and therefore a poor indicator of health. This point brings us to the question of body composition.
Body Composition Definition
In simple terms, body composition is the contribution of bone density, joints, ligaments, muscle mass, and fat mass to the accumulative body weight.
For example, if you lose three pounds of fats but gain three pounds of muscles through a combination of diet, strength training or hypertrophy program, your weight will remain the same before and after this intervention.
On the other hand, your body composition has changed for the better because you gained muscles and shed some fats.
As obvious, gaining muscles is very healthy and good for your optimal fitness. But, this won’t be reflected in the scales if you only measure your overall body weight. Therefore, we should look beyond the total body as the only predictor of health.
Why FFMI Is Better Indicator of Health Than BMI
The better alternative is FFMI, the fat-free mass index which takes into account the total muscle mass divided by the height in meters squared. Therefore, an athlete who has an impressive muscle mass would be an example of optimal fitness on the FFMI.
There are many ways readings of the FFMI can be interpreted. But, some researchers have come to the average number of 15 for women, and 19 for men on FFMI as optimal health indicators.
Based on FFMI, you can have a better idea of your optimal health or optimal fitness.
If your muscle mass is lower than the average, you need some work on your body composition for increasing lean mass in proportion to fats. In such a case, you need an intervention of the kind when friends of an addict confront him/her on their drug use. But, only in this case, you will be intervening against yourself to push yourself to reduce the fat mass and hopefully gain some muscle in the process.
When you have gained some idea of your muscle mass vis-a-vis the fat mass, you can have some idea of your projected health down the line in your life.
There have been different studies that have given us indications that the accumulation of fats, for example in the abdomen areas, runs a high risk of heart problems, the slowdown of metabolism and overall quality of life in coming years.
What Is the Difference between Fat-Free Mass and Lean Body Mass?
Although the two terms are used interchangeably, there is a distinction between them as used in the context of medical academic literature.
The fat-free mass refers to muscle mass only while lean body mass may include other things like your bone density, joints, etc. In essence, lean body mass is the total of everything other than the fats in your body.
What More Should We Know about Fats?
We can’t say; a. Fats are fats and b. All fats are created equal.
In fact, some fats are more valuable than others. In contrast, there are some like those fats in the waist area turn us into Apple-like figures and therefore undesirable.
There is one type of fats called essential fats, which as you can obviously see are essential. These are the fats in and around vital organs like heart, kidney, etc. that have as important functions as their geographical location in the body.
The other kind of fats, the non-essential kind that is in the abdomen area, the love-handles, the hips or elsewhere are called subcutaneous fats, or under the skin fats. These are the kinds that are not so desirable.
There are also other fats, known as visceral fats or deep fats that are also non-essential fats if in large quantities, and are different than the essential fats in the organs.
What is a Healthy Fat Percentage?
Here, we can have two categories, one from a fitness point of view and the other from a general health point of view.
If a man has 20 to 26 body fat percentage, we can put him in the general health category, as someone enjoying optimal health. If he changes his body composition for the better and brings his body fat percentage below twenty to ten, we can place him in the fitness category, as someone enjoying optimal fitness.
It should be noted, here, bringing down the body fat percentage to the optimal fitness level needs long-term work and has no quick, healthy fixes (I emphasize the term “healthy” here).
For women, the above measures would change as 20 to 30 in the general optimal health category and 15 to 25 in the optimal fitness category. The rest of the things, discussed in the context of men, would also be true for women.
Here, I would like to point out that the true body fat percentage is difficult as I would discuss later. And, we usually underestimate our body fat percentage and overestimate the muscle mass. Even if you are considerably shredded and your six packs visible, you may still have body fat percentage in double figures. There are many factors we need to pay attention to in this context. And, it is healthy to have some fats in the body.
Where do you Store your Fats?
This is an important question.
It has been observed in many studies that the fats stored around the waist/abdomen are more dangerous in the long-run than those stored elsewhere.
The abdominal area fats tend to be more common in men and hence you may see Apple-like shapes around their waists. On the other hand, the fats in the hips area are more common in women, and if stored too much, they give a pear-shape to their bodies.
But, the pear-shaped raises fewer health concerns than the apple ones.
What is Your Body Type? Ectomorph, Mesomorph, or Endomorph
Another way of looking at shapes is the general use of the three categories: ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs.
The ectomorphs are naturally lean and don’t store fats easily. But, they also don’t gain muscle mass easily.
The mesomorphs, half-way between ectomorphs and endomorphs, have more fats than the ectomorphs, but they can also gain muscles easier than them.
The third category person, the endomorph, usually gains fats fairly easily and has bigger joints and tends to have rounder bodies.
But, the important point, here, is that years of bad habits in diet or good routines of workouts and walking can impact your body shape for better or for worse.
You could be, and ectomorph or mesomorph but long term excessive calories, and lack of physical activity may have buried your original natural shaped under piles of fats.
In this case, you may want to become conscious about health and start excavating with the skills of an archaeologist to chisel out your body shape.
What are the Methods to Measure Body Fat Percentage?
The only truly accurate and hundred percent precise ways to measure body fat is the direct method. But, there is a big problem that makes it unfeasible. The person has to be dead to precisely measure their body fat percentage.
But, there are many indirect methods for measuring body fat percentage that can give us fairly respectable and close to the precise reading of our body fats. In these methods, we don’t have to sacrifice ourselves for the cause of science or fitness.
The ONE thing that needs to be kept in mind that the measuring may have + or – five error.
If for example, your body fat percentage is measured to be 30 percent, the consideration for error would mean the true percentage could be anywhere between 25 and 35.
This margin of error can be misleading sometimes and can put us off track on our health or fitness goals. This error and the misjudgment can be minimized if the measurement is carried out by the same tool/method and preferably by the same person (operator, technician, gym instructor, etc.).
The indirect methods can be carried out by assessing the body’s density: plethysmography (Bod Pod chamber) and underwater weight.
The second way to measure body fat percentage is through image techniques: MRI, CT, DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry).
The biggest mistake that people make is when they rely on a single assessment of body fat percentage and base their fitness, diet or overall health decisions on that.
It is recommended to have multiple assessments spread through a few months or at least a few weeks to gain a better understanding of your health.
To end this discussion on some general themes, we should note that the naked eye can give us a good assessment of body fat percentage and therefore our general well-being.
There is the general method of waist-to-hip ratio that can be extremely helpful in our health and fitness decisions.
Let’s say you have a considerably big belly, and at the same time, you have a good amount fats in the hip area too.
If that ratio is anything beyond 0.6 (for women), it should be cause for concern for you.
If you are a man and your waist-to-hip ratio is 0.9 or 1 or more than that, it should ring the bells for to motivate you to join any church of fitness nearby. To draw an imagery of what I am talking about, a man with a ratio of more than 1 would mean that his belly is bigger than his hips, which is surprisingly common. It is the zone where long term fat accumulation can lead to serious diseases.
In this case, women should feel a little luckier because they typically have fat accumulation in the hips area more than the abdomen. We can say women tend to be more gynoid and less android and therefore women usually have more “pear shape” than the “apple shape.” But, it has been observed that older women can gain weight in the abdomen area sometimes. As opposed to their accumulation in the hips area in women, fats in men tend to move toward the abdomen as their preferable storage space.
In other words, women gravitate more towards the pears and men towards apples. If there is someone who has got a bigger belly and bigger hips and their two front and back protrusions are of the same size, then we have a half-apple, half-pear made up of fats. It is not to ridicule or body-shame anyone, but it is a general discussion of what fats accumulation can do to us.