Body fat. Understanding and reducing it

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We know that obese people have poorer COVID outcomes. It seems like a simple connection with weight. But actually weight and fat are not as tightly related as you might think.

The problem with BMI

The body mass index (BMI) is a measure that uses your height and weight to work out if your weight is healthy. But BMI cannot tell the difference between excess fat, muscle or bone. You might be a normal weight according to your height, but you can still carry too much body fat. In fact, your body fat percentage or waist measurement are more accurate indicators or predictors of potential health problems.

So let’s help you better understand and measure body fat.

You must speak to your GP about any unintentional increase or decrease in your weight. This may be a sign of significant illness.‍

Body fat: The good and the bad

Having fat in our body isn't all bad - in fact we can’t do without it! Fat surrounds and cushions vital organs like the kidneys and insulates us against the cold. Fat is also our fuel tank, a calorie reserve to protect against starvation.

But having too much fat especially in the wrong places isn’t good. The fat you can see, that sits under the skin, often in rolls, is called subcutaneous fat. The fat you can’t see and that gathers around your organs is called visceral fat. Fat accumulated in the lower body (if you’re pear shaped) is generally subcutaneous, while fat in the abdominal area (if you’re an apple shape) is largely visceral.

Visceral fat is essentially fat that’s stored deeper than normal belly fat. It wraps around your major organs including the liver, pancreas and kidneys and contributes to a range of dangerous health conditions such as heart disease, dementia and cancer. Too much visceral fat in your system can make it difficult for you to produce insulin and can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

How to measure fat

The amount of fat you need to be healthy varies depending on age and sex.

Waist hip ratio

Enter your waist and hip measurements. If you do this in the app, it will calculate it for you, or simply divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement.

The WHO suggests a healthy WHR is:

  • 0.9 or less in men
  • 0.85 or less for women

If you have a higher waist hip ratio than this, it’s likely you are storing fat around your middle which could be an indication of higher levels of visceral body fat. That’s the bad stuff.

If you don’t have the app, you can download it here. Calculating your waist hip ratio is one of many helpful insights you’ll get if you sign up!

Body fat percentage

To take a truly accurate measurement of your body fat, you’d need a costly scan. You might also consider buying bio-impedance scales that send electrical pulses through your body to “read” how much body fat you have.  

If you have time, a few more measurements can give you an estimation of your body fat percentage. The US Navy has developed a standardised body fat calculator which uses age, sex, height, waist and neck measurements. There are a number of these calculators online like this one. This will give you an estimated body fat percentage and give you an idea of clinically-accepted ranges. However, unlike BMI, body fat is an emerging field and there is no agreement on firm boundaries. Remember to record these measurements in the app if you have it!

5 ways to reduce visceral fat

If you find that your body fat is higher than it should be for your age and sex, it might be worth considering these tips for improved health:

1. Give fast food the boot

Refined carbohydrates and sugars contribute heavily to our storage of fat. Firstly, try to cut down on free sugars; that’s found in cakes, sweets, biscuits, chocolate, soft drinks, breakfast cereal and yoghurts etc. Free sugars are also found naturally in honey, unsweetened fruit juice, vegetable juices and smoothies. Try to stick to less than 30g of free sugars per day. It's worth remembering this is a maximum and not a recommended amount; ideally we wouldn’t be having any but if you’d like a sweet treat, try to let it be just that - a treat.

2. Make good food swaps

Beat hunger and reduce insulin spikes with healthy protein choices. Avoid greasy hamburgers, bacon and processed sausages in favour of fish, lean meats such as turkey or chicken, beans and free-range eggs. Eating healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocados and walnuts, or fermented foods like kimchi, live yoghurt and miso can benefit your insulin balance, gut bacteria, hormones, and weight management. Our article on what's in healthy diet has some good tips.

3. Lose the booze.

Alcohol makes you gain weight around your mid-section, without you realising. It’s so easy to guzzle down hundreds, even thousands, of liquid calories. Extra alcohol units also place strain on the liver, which is already working over time to break down the toxic visceral fat acids, if you carry excess visceral fat. Give your liver a break – alternate beers with water. This article on managing your alcohol intake might help.

4. Smoking - be a quitter

Cigarettes take a toll on almost your entire body. Like visceral fat, smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Take a step towards quitting today by cutting down the number of cigarettes per week. These 10 tips on the NHS website may also help you quit.

5. Move it

Visceral fat loss comes with combining healthy food and a good fitness routine. Research found high-intensity interval training (also known as HIIT) to be the best method for losing visceral fat. It also helps increase your insulin sensitivity. Essentially HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods. Our article on 5 ways to improve your fitness might help.


Keep track and take action.

It’s a good idea to keep track of your body fat alongside your BMI so you really understand where you may have problems, or not! Try to update your body fat measurements in the records section of the app every 3 months. The key is to use same method for measuring your body fat each time so you can track your progress.

If you want more help to lose weight or body fat, there are links to Evergreen articles below about diet and fitness, including an interesting one about the role of blood sugar, that you might find helpful.

Evergreen Life | Understanding your BMI: Blood sugar levels and how to regulate them

Evergreen Life | What's in a healthy diet

Evergreen Life | 7 tips for weight loss

Evergreen Life | 5 key areas to improve your fitness

📲 Want to check your health and overall wellbeing? Download the Evergreen Life app here and take your available questionnaires including the BMI and Body Fat Check to start your wellness journey.
References

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Take your available questionnaires including the BMI and Body Fat Check to start your wellness journey.

Written by
Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Meet Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA, Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years' experience as a GP.

Article updated:
January 25, 2022
Reviewed by:
Dr James Harmsworth King MBBS MPhil PhD
Biotechnology & Medical Expert