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Updated: August 21, 2010 19:12 IST

Skinny yet fat

DR. SHEELA NAMBIARM. D.
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Being skinny is not always good.
Special Arrangements Being skinny is not always good.

Don't waste your time watching your weight. What you actually need to watch is your body composition. Read on...

Have you ever been envious of that super slim woman who can wear whatever she likes and claims she doesn't do a day's exercise in her life AND can eat anything? 

Well the chances are such a person, has a high fat percentage and low muscle mass. She may look good in her clothes but her body composition is not necessarily worth envying.

Stepping on the scale seems to be a preoccupation for many dieters, and fitness enthusiasts. Scales are everywhere: the bathroom, gym, health club, doctor's office. I have even noticed people in Gyms approaching the scale with some trepidation (and perhaps a few muttered prayers) every day before AND after their workout. Despite this fixation with “weight” we seem to be getting “fatter” than ever.

Why “weight” loss should not be your only goal

Moving that scale down to preferably a single digit seems to be the prime objective for most exercisers. The latest fad diets, endless hours of cardio, extreme calorie restriction and eating disorders are a direct result of our desire to step on the scale and see that we've lost “weight”.

However the number indicated on the scale is rarely a good indicator of our body composition.  Weight on the scale alone can't tell you anything about the distribution of that weight. It doesn't take into account the ratio of fat to muscle tissue. This can cause very lean (muscular), but heavy individuals to assume they are “fatter” than they really are, and fatty people, (who perhaps weigh “within the normal range” according to the standard Height/Weight charts) to believe they are doing just fine.  

In other words, losing weight on the scale alone without altering ‘body composition” can actually be detrimental to health, especially if it is at the expense of losing muscle. 

Visually, an individual may appear “slim” and may fit into that annoying “size Zero” pair of jeans. But consider her fat to muscle ratio. Is her fat percentage within the normal range for her gender and age? Does she have adequate muscle mass to help her function and move correctly? 

Understanding body fat percentages

Body fat percentage is the only truly accurate way to measure body composition. Consider two spherical objects of exactly the same dimensions. One made of steel and the other of rubber. The steel sphere is akin to a muscular body while the rubber to a fatty body. Which weighs more? Obviously, the steel sphere. Similarly, a muscular body of the same dimensions will weigh more than one with a higher fat percentage. Muscle inherently weights more than fat.

Fat, on the other hand, occupies more volume. So, to approach the analogy another way, a steel ball weighing five kg will be much smaller in dimensions than a rubber one of the same weight. 

In other words a muscular individual may weigh more but will have smaller dimensions than someone with a higher fat percentage. Your body displays fat and muscle differently. One pound of muscle looks very different on the body from one pound of fat. Muscle makes you appear leaner, while fat just, well, makes you look fat.

Stop obsessing about how much you weigh or what your BMI is. Instead, focus on your ratio of muscle to fat percentage.  You will then start looking and feeling better. It will also change your mind about the long-term effectiveness of crash diets and the importance of weight training.

Use an inch tape instead of the scale. A decreasing waistline is a better indicator of fat loss than lower numbers on the scale.

Improve muscle mass

Adopt an exercise plan that incorporates cardiovascular exercise along with weight training. The cardio will help burn calories using fat as a source of energy while the weight training increases muscle mass. Even women, particularly women, need to train with weights.  Your muscle depletes, as you grow older. The only way to restore and build it is by using external resistance. As we don't make it a habit of performing hard physical labour every day, the only other option is to include weight training into your workout.

Increase the intensity of your workout and include High Intensity, Interval Training to burn more fat. Most individuals are fearful of pushing their limits while working out. Fear perhaps of a sudden cardiac event or the sheer discomfort experienced with the breathlessness. 

The fear is unwarranted if you build your intensity gradually. Agreed the sensation produced by a high intensity workout may not be something everyone can come to actually enjoy. But over a period of time the amazing after-effects seem well worth the effort.

Include protein at every meal to balance and stabilise blood sugars. Eating purely carb meals will cause your blood sugars to increase dramatically, consequently increasing insulin secretion and fat accumulation.  Include protein with every meal either in the form of low fat poultry, fish, eggs, lentils, nuts or soy.

Advantages of higher muscle mass

Fat is metabolically inactive.  A pound of fat burns around two calories per day to maintain itself. The purpose of body fat is to store energy for use later, when food is scarce. This is an evolutionary adaptation based on the way we lived thousands of years ago, when the availability of food was not guaranteed. 

Muscle, on the other hand, burns around six calories per pound per day at rest. A muscular body is therefore more metabolically active than a fatty one.

Muscles form the foundation for movement. In order to be able to move correctly and elegantly one needs the help of muscles. To climb stairs, sit down and stand up, bend down, straighten up, twist, turn, do house work, walk, run, stand for long periods of time, we require muscle.

A muscular body therefore will hold you in good stead long after the fatty one has eased you into bed with ailments best avoided irrespective of whether you LOOK thin or not.

Avoid the common error of yearning for a “skinny body”. Aim instead for one with adequate muscle mass.

Dr. Sheela Nambiar M.D, is a Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, Fitness and Lifestyle Consultant NAFC (USA) and Director, TFL Fitness Studio, Chennai. E-mail drsheela@tfl-inc.com

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