The Appearance of Health: What Is a Healthy Weight and Body Fat?

Tuesday Mar 25 | BY |
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Ten years ago, I was struggling with a raw food diet. I was trying to make it work in my life, but I would go back and forth. At 5’10” (179 cm), I normally carried myself at a weight of around 145 pounds. To me at the time, I was too skinny. I preferred to have a “fuller” look, even though I may have been perfectly healthy at that weight.

Often, people around me would comment on my appearance. And I started noticing something strange.

Whenever I would go off the wagon and binge on salty snacks, my body would swell up from the excess salt I just ate. My face puffed up, and I looked different. A few times, I met some other fellow raw food enthusiasts who commented that I looked “great” and must have been working out.

Yet, it had been just one of those times when I had fallen off the wagon. I had not worked out, but I looked “fatter” from having overeaten on junk food. My energy was drained, I had slept poorly, and I felt terrible. Yet, people thought that I looked at my healthiest.

Those experiments made me question what we consider to be the “look of health.”

Fast forward 10 years later: I am 38 years old, and my normal weight is closer to 160 pounds now. That’s 10 pounds lighter than I weighed at my heaviest, just a year ago, when I was lifting weights consistently.

At my heaviest, my friends gave me the best compliments as to how healthy I looked. When I started working out more seriously, I gave myself free license to eat as much as I wanted. I gained muscle, but I also gained body fat. So, since then I have shed 10 pounds. I personally think that my body is more balanced now.

Yet, again I had people tell me that I was fine and to “make sure to not lose more weight.”

My body fat is currently around 17%. I am in a relatively healthy range according to standard charts, but not in an athletic range — not even close. For having studied physiology, I know that I could lose even more body fat and actually be much healthier and fitter. My goal is to get my body fat just below 15%. I do not have the dedication to exercise enough to bring my body fat down to under 10%, which would be the level required to get that ultimate six-pack abs board that everyone dreams about. But, I would be happy shedding a few more percentage points from my current body fat.

Yet, again, if I were to mention this to people around me that I know that do not understand these concepts, they would think I am crazy!

They already think that I’m “skinny” being 5”10′ and weighing 160 pounds. Compared to most men of my height in America, I may appear “skinny.”

But in reality, I am nowhere near “skinny.” I could lose 15-20 pounds of fat and be under 9% of body fat, and that would be considered skinny. Yet, even at that weight, I would not be underweight. I would have to lose at least another 10 or 15 pounds to really be underweight.

My brother is relatively “skinny.” He’s 6’2” and about 155 pounds. He seems to naturally get to that weight.

For me, on any diet, my body seems to want to hover between 15 and 17% body fat. To get under 10%, I would need some serious dedication to exercise and dieting — essentially turn it into a full time job.

So, it brings me to the question: What’s a healthy weight?

We have a skewed perception in our culture. We think that men should be big, and women overly skinny.

The Average Man in America

The average man in America is 5’8” with a BMI of 29. That means he weighs 191 pounds.

For me to be at the same BMI, I would have to weigh 202 pounds, roughly 42 pounds more than I weigh now. No wonder people think I’m skinny!

Yet, if we go by BMI alone, I could weigh as little as 130 pounds and still be considered at a healthy weight. (Let’s mention that the BMI is not completely accurate because it doesn’t take into consideration muscle mass.)

In Japan, the average BMI is 23.7 for men, which means that our average American guy would have to weigh 156 pounds to match the weight of Japanese men. (According to the stats, I weigh slightly less than a Japanese man.)

The Average Woman in America

For women, the average BMI is close to that men. It’s 28.7. The average American woman stands a bit under 5’5” (164 cm, to be exact). That means that the average woman weighs a little over 170 pounds, but would have to weigh a very thin 122 pounds to match the BMI of a Japanese woman!

Another Indication on Healthy Weight

Of course, comparing country by country isn’t fair. There are genetic differences in each country that affect weight. However, body fat doesn’t lie.

Here’s the chart from the American Council on Exercise (ACE):

bodyfat.003

Essential fat is the percentage that the body actually needs in order to stay healthy. It’s actually very difficult for most people to get under those percentages unless placed in extreme starvation situations. You’ll notice that women need about 10% more body fat than men.

The athletic range is actually the ideal range for physically active people. This is what I refer to when I tell my friends that I would like to drop a bit more weight. I want to keep my muscle mass, of course, but losing some extra body fat to get in that range is always a good idea, if it’s at all possible.

The “fitness” range is a realistic, but difficult target for most people. My efforts are to at least stay in that category.

Do we need more body fat as we get older?

Some body fat charts allow for people to carry more body fat as they get older. That’s for two reasons.

One: the charts are based on statistics, and people tend to get fat as they get older.

The second reason is that there’s this belief that older people somehow need more body fat. It’s true that at very low body fat levels, you incur a higher risk of osteoporosis.

As we’ve seen, the requirements for body fat are so low that it would be impossible for most people to get down to those levels. Just shooting for the “fitness” category would be a good-enough goal for most people at any age. So, it’s not actually productive to even worry about that, because that’s not the problem we face.

The real problem is that our metabolism DOES slow down by about 5 to 10% a year starting at age 40. By “metabolism” we mean the number of calories you need at rest. That means that if you required 2000 calories a day to function at 40, you may require as few as 1620 calories to function at age 60. That’s a huge gap! If you continue to eat the same number of calories you ate 20 years ago, you will consistently gain weight.

I believe that this big gap comes from the fact that people start to lose muscle mass after age 40. Muscle requires calories to maintain, so that partly explains the lowering of metabolism as we get older.

The solution? Lift heavy weights! Or practice weight training. Whatever you prefer to call it.

This is the number one exercise that you should do to age gracefully.

Also, keeping up with an exercise routine in general (including cardio) will help fill the gap by burning extra calories in the day.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to say on this topic, and I know that I only covered a tiny bit. My main point is that there seems to be a gap between what people perceive is healthy in the appearance of health. At least when it comes to weight and body fat, we have a pretty straightforward answer given by science. Of course, there are a lot more similar contradictions that we could explore in future articles.

Question of the day: Have you ever wondered about what is the true “appearance of health”? And what do you think?

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

10 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Satori says:

    America is changing my idea of “healthy appearance” for sure. Every time I gain weight, people told me I look great! So when I recently gain weight again for being unhealthy, I thought I look healthier and loved it, although I felt awful. Then I went back to Japan for vacation and guess what? My friends look at me and said “what happened…??” My mom even asked me if a gym membership expensive in the US!!!! I was the heaviest out of all my girlfriends.

  2. L. Pohn says:

    What does health look like? Bright and clear eyes, shiny, lively hair, glowing , smooth skin, absence of body oders. Healthy teeth, a happy outlook, wake up in the morning with energy that’s sustained throuout the day. Not excessively fat nor excessively thin. This is what health looks and feels like!

  3. Rebecca Cody says:

    My husband always looks good, even when he’s seeing a new doctor with yet another major problem. He is one of the 20% of people who have 80% of surgeries. Before we met he had already had one angioplasty and an endarterectomy (reaming out his carotid artery), and shortly after we were married he had another angioplasty and a stent applied. The stent closed up in four months, so he had a triple bypass. Since then he has had one hip replaced, cancer on his vocal cords, which was removed surgically, followed by 6 weeks of daily radiation therapy. He has had a microwave procedure on his prostate which really messed him up and caused several months of grief before he had a TURP to correct the problem caused by the prior procedure. It was his second TURP. He has even landed in the hospital two or three times with infections too serious to treat at home.

    I honestly think that if it weren’t for changes I’ve made in his diet, he would probably be dead by now. But I can’t get him to stick with a really healthy program, or he’d be in better shape.

    He is tall, slim, and handsome, with skin that looks like he hits the tanning bed every week. This is thanks to a bit of Native American blood, not to owning his own tanning bad, of which he has been accused.

    My point is that even doctors tell him how good he looks. No matter what illness or condition he sees yet another new doctor for, we always end up cracking up when the doctor tells him, “But you look so good!” It happens every time!

  4. wayne says:

    whats surprising to me me is the healthy “experts” out there that don’t really “look” all that fit and healthy.For instance if you compare David Wolfe to Mark Sisson suddenly mr Wolfe looks like an out of shape marshmallow .So I guess its what your own personal Idea of Healthy is.You can be thin or thicker and still be healthy but too thin or just fat I dont think so .For me its” quality” of life,how do I feel ,what can I do .I personally try to stay on the “Sisson” side of health so I can do all the things I enjoy and as a side benefit I like what I see in the mirror..bonus !…my grand father lived to be 103 yrs old and healthy and active till the end he told me if you let yourself get to a point where you are too fat or lazy to do the things you love you have stopped living and started dieing ….then he would say “so get off your ass and LIVE”

  5. Lisa Sture says:

    When I first went fully raw, and I did it overnight, it took about 18 months to get to just under the weight I had been as a teenager. I was skinny but felt FANTASTIC. My friends were so unhappy, they would say I was killing myself. Because I was thin everyone thought I was anorexic (so far from the truth!) The pressure became too much and so I decided to put weight on to stop it.

    A while later I realised why I didn’t look so good was because I hadn’t at the same time built muscle. It is the muscle that gives the ‘good looking’ effect. I looked more like walking bones! I think I was healthy, but not strong.

  6. Alex says:

    Interesting piece. Amongst many men my age in the UK now – the perceived ‘ideal’ seems to be very high in muscle mass – you’re talking men of 6 foot being a min. of 200 pounds and a body fat % of around 15-18% – which I think is too much muscle mass – takes a huge amount of heavy weights and protein to achieve that. And also takes away from other aspects of life and being healthy. They’re in the gym 5 days a week. I’m 6ft 1 and 180 pounds – at my heaviest was 230 pounds (mainly fat not muscle) so have lost a lot of weight to get to my current, but am working my way down to 175 pounds – aiming for a body fat % of 18 – currently about 21%. I think that would be a really healthy weight for me. Interestingly my friends think that is too light – but I think our culture sees muscular, bulky men as being ‘healthy.’

  7. Zyxomma says:

    I’ll be 60 on my next birthday. I’m a vibrantly healthy vegan (I know, not many of us around), who walks all over my city and climbs four flights of stairs to get home. I keep improving my mind, body, and spirit. I can walk my stairs, carrying packages, without losing my breath, climb a mountain anytime I get the opportunity, and enjoy life with an attitude of gratitude.

    As I tell my clients, even more important than having high-Brix, organic, local, fresh produce (and that’s quite important), when preparing a meal, love is the first ingredient. When I sit to eat a meal, I express my gratitude to everyone who had a hand in bringing that meal to my plate, whether I’m home or out. Everyone gets thanked equally: the one who planted the seed, the waterer, weeder, pollinator, harvester, trucker, cashier, produce manager, store manager, cashier, chef, line cook, waiter, dishwasher — in short, everyone. This attitude of gratitude serves me well. Health and peace.

  8. Uma says:

    I was saurekrat and other similar probiotics made at home. I got a very good relief from indigestion and many other small problems. But my weight started increasing and I have put on 4 kgs. extra in three months. I do not know where I am wrong. But I had to leave eating them. Now I take enema (coffee). Any suggestions?

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