Why You Shouldn’t Aim For The Impossible ‘Zero Percent Body Fat’

Here’s how low you can go before you compromise your health.

 

Washboard abs, lean legs and vascular arms may be the hallmarks of any shredded bodybuilder, but just how much fat can you lose before you compromise your health?

A video of bodybuilder Ella (Eleonora) Dobrinina showing off her six-pack sparked controversy over whether her physique was healthy.

Many users noted the tongue-in-cheek “zero percent body fat” title was impossible and anyone with zero percent body fat would be dead. Indeed, the essential body fat for a woman is between 10 and 13 percent. Dobrinina is probably closer to seven percent.

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What does this mean? Women need more fat than men for basic physical and physiological health—not all fat is bad fat! Women need a certain amount of fat for ovulation. You may know a woman who has lost her menstrual cycle after getting too lean.

So how lean is too lean? A research paper published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000 concluded women between the ages of 20 and 40 under 21 percent body fat are considered “underfat” and 21 to 33 percent is considered healthy. For men in the same category, eight percent is considered “underfat,” whereas a healthy range is between eight to 19 percent.

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Many bodybuilders diet down or even maintain numbers well below this range on a regular basis, but it is important to know the difference between training for aesthetics and training for health. Of course, body fat is only one measure of health. To imply that anyone who has a six-pack and eats well is “underfat” or “unhealthy” is a stretch.

The same goes for men, however, Andreas Munzer was one of the world’s top bodybuilders and claimed to boast the hallowed “zero percent body fat” before his death in 1996, which was largely thought to be related to the excess in diuretics he consumed.

The ideal body fat for aesthetics is even more subjective than the ideal body fat for health. The majority of comments on Dobrinina’s shredded body were anything but complimentary. Users called her body “disgusting” and “ugly,” questioning whether she was even a woman.

On the other hand, lean yet feminine physiques like fitness model Michelle Lewin are idolized in both the bodybuilding world and by us mere mortals. Lewin self-purported her body fat percentage to be 9.9 percent on her Twitter account (although this estimate is probably a little low).

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Body fat percentage can be estimated several different ways, including the use of calipers and bioelectrical impedance scales, but the margin of error can be up to five percent! Hydration levels and food intake can be enough to skew the test.

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The hydrostatic dunk test is believed to be one of the most accurate tests. The subject must submerge themselves in water and blow all of the air out of their body—probably not a test you’re going to do on a regular basis.

Read on for a revolutionary new way to measure your body fat.

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