The Effects of Body Composition on Health
by Amy Hiebert
What is Body Composition?
To determine body composition we divide your body into two separate types of mass: fat-free mass and body fat. Fat-free mass is comprised of all the body’s non-fat tissues and includes bone, water, muscle, and organs. Body fat is literally the fat located within the body. Body composition is the body’s relative amount of fat to fat-free mass. An unhealthy body composition refers to carrying too much fat in comparison to fat-free mass. Those with optimal body composition are typically healthier, move more easily and efficiently, and feel better than those with less than ideal body composition.
We have all heard and read about the obesity epidemic. More and more of our population are considered to be overweight or obese. Presently, many children and adolescents are also falling under the category of overweight or obese and are heading for a lifetime of chronic disease. Even more alarming is the fact you may not realize you need to lose excess body fat, because you physically appear to be of normal weight. Despite looking thin and having a normal weight, you can have altered or unhealthy body composition.
Body Composition is More Than Just Your Weight
Body weight alone (what the scale says) is not a definitive assessment of body composition. Even after losing weight, you might still be considered over fat. This occurs when the weight you lose comes predominantly from muscle and not from fat, producing an unhealthy body composition. This often happens with crash diets and severe calorie restriction. Where your fat accumulates also impacts the risk of consequences. Excess fat that is concentrated near the waist, commonly called the “apple” shape, increases your risk of disease. Have you noticed that over time your waist has grown? Having excess fat on the inside but looking normal on the outside may result in disease risks that are similar to those who appear overtly overweight.
Factors That Lead to Unhealthy Body Composition
There is no single cause of unhealthy body composition. The four lifestyle factors that most influence body composition are sleep, stress, exercise, and diet. Excessive fat gain can result from an imbalance between the calories you take in and the ones you burn, lack of physical activity, eating a high fat/high sugar diet, excess alcohol intake, hormone imbalance, and other metabolic factors. As well, being chronically sleep-deficient and having a high stress lifestyle will also impact body composition.
The Consequences of Unhealthy Body Composition
Metabolic syndrome (also called syndrome X or insulin-resistance syndrome) is characterized by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood insulin and glucose levels. People with metabolic syndrome are at greater risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. As a rule, a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for men and greater than 35 inches for women significantly increases the risk of metabolic syndrome.
Even hormone balance can be affected by unhealthy body composition, because estrogen can be produced in fat tissue. An increase in the fat to muscle mass could therefore lead to an imbalance in estrogen. This has been associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), uterine fibroid tumours, fibrocystic or painful breasts, cervical dysplasia, endometriosis, and breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
Other problems associated with unhealthy body composition are back pain, respiratory problems (including sleep apnea), urinary incontinence, excess fatigue, kidney disorders, gall bladder disorders, and osteoarthritis.
Achieving Healthy Body Composition
Several simple, non-invasive methods are available that can estimate body composition. These include waist to hip ratio and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA). A BIA measures the difference between electrical currents passed thought different tissues. Muscle mass is metabolically active and passes electrical current quite easily, whereas fat mass acts as an insulator and slows the current. The BIA machine will take this into account and determine your body composition from this information. A healthy body composition program helps a person lose weight and look thinner by targeting fat loss and preserving muscle. By preserving lean muscle mass a person will reduce their risk of disease and may decrease the likelihood that fat will return after the program is complete. This is because a higher ratio of muscle to fat will increase the body’s metabolic rate, enabling the body to more effectively burn calories each day.
There are a few simple steps you can take to improve your own body composition: (1) Base your diet on non-starchy vegetables (the ones that grow above the ground); (2) Make sure you are getting adequate protein, and space it throughout the day; (3) Ensure that you are physically active, including strength-building exercises, such as lifting weights, and stretching to your routine as well; (4) Get adequate sleep and explore different techniques for stress management. As well, nutritional supplementation may also offer additional and significant benefits to the traditional approach to improving body composition. Contact your naturopathic doctor or health care practitioner to determine which supplements will benefit your particular case.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy body composition is about adopting healthy habits and lifestyle, and living life to the fullest!
Dr. Amy Hiebert, ND, is a Naturopathic Doctor in Saskatoon. She is currently accepting new patients into her practice at A Place of Resonance. She has a general practice and treats all types of patients. She is currently using a program called FirstLine Therapy along with a BIA machine to help people discover and change their body composition, as well as adopt healthy lifestyle habits. For more information call the clinic at (306) 373-5209 and see the display ad on page 15 of the 16.3 September/October
issue of the WHOLifE Journal.