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Body Weight, Body Fat, Or Body Mass Index (BMI): Which One Should You Weigh In On?

May 2007
Body Weight, Body Fat, Or Body Mass Index (BMI): Which One Should You Weigh In On?

People have continued to obsess over their weight for many years, and still continue to do so. "I need to lose 10 pounds to fit in my jeans." "If I lost only 5 pounds, I'd be in great shape!" These are comments that, if we've not made ourselves, we've definitely heard from our acquaintances. Should you really obsess over just your body weight or is there more to it that you're overlooking? Let's take a closer look. Body weight, body fat, and body mass index are three ways to assess one's body composition. Which one should you focus on more closely?

Body Weight: Body weight is just that. It is the total weight of one's body, which includes the weight of bones, blood, organs, muscles, water, and fat. Even though certain standards have been set for the ‘ideal' body weight according to one's body frame, ideal body weight still remains controversial. One reason is that two people with the same type of body frame can have the same weight but very different body composition: one might have more lean muscle, while the other might have more fat and be less fit and less healthy.

Body Mass Index (BMI): BMI is a tool frequently used by health care professionals in assessing weight status in adults. BMI, which is derived by dividing one's body weight in kilograms by height in meters squared (BMI=kg/m2), has its advantages and disadvantages. Even though BMI is a good predictor of an individual's risk of developing chronic disease and health problems based on excess weight one is carrying; it does not distinguish between lean muscle mass and fat mass. With BMI, individuals are classified under the following categories:

Underweight BMI <18.5

Normal weight BMI 18.5-24.9

Overweight BMI 25-29.9

Obesity BMI >30

(Source: American Council on Exercise)

Since BMI doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle weight, a lean, fit individual, or an athlete with a high amount of muscle mass can be classified as being overweight or obese, whereas in reality they may have a relatively low level of body fat and be at low risk for disease.

Body Fat: Body fat is measured in percentage to tell how much fat your body contains. A certain amount of fat is essential for daily body functions; however, too much fat can increase your risk of chronic disease. How much fat is normal? The American Council on Exercise provides the following ranges for body fat:

Women Men

Essential Fat 10-12% 2-4%

Athletes 13-20% 5-13%

Fitness 21-24% 14-17%

Acceptable 25-31% 18-25%

Obese 32% and Higher 26% and Higher

Body fat rather than body weight is the measure that you want to focus on, as those who fall in the obese category are clearly at higher risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases that are a result of having a high body fat percentage. Also those that are in the obese category may carry body fat around their abdomen, and this alone is a risk factor for disease. On the other hand, some people may not necessary look ‘fat' but can still have a high body fat percentage and, therefore, be at risk for disease. Going below the levels of ‘essential fat' for women can also be unhealthy as these women are at risk of osteoporosis and irregular menstrual cycles. Modern scales that measure weight and body fat are a good tool to have at home, but you should know that they have an error margin rate of 1%-2%.

So now that you've measured your body fat, and you're in the acceptable category or even borderline, don't wear that smile on your face just yet, because if you're leading a sedentary lifestyle your body fat is very likely to creep up into the ‘obese' category in the next few years! For those of you whose body fat percentage is already in the ‘obese' category, this should be a wakeup call! Talk to your health care professional about improving your diet, and start an exercise program that includes weight training, since regular exercise with diet modification is the only way to lower your body fat percentage and maintain it there. When it comes to the scale, don't just focus on your body weight alone; instead understand your body fat percentage. Then aim to lead an active healthy lifestyle and keep in mind that one could be a fit, healthy 150 lb person with a low body fat percentage, or an unfit, unhealthy 150 lb person with a high body fat percentage!

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