To achieve washboard or six/eight-pack abs, a fitness holy grail for many, the body fat percentage has to be brought down to an unhealthy and unsustainable level. Ironically maintaining chiseled abs, a fitness metric, a tangible sign of good health can take a toll on the body, and is detrimental to both physical and mental well-being, say experts.
Rachit Bir, a fitness and nutrition coach from Bengaluru, maintains a healthy body fat percentage, which he considers as one of the many metrics to measure fitness. “I am extremely happy with my current level of fitness. I occasionally munch on my favourite food and that feels good,” says Rachit. “For a brief period, though, I had a low body fat percentage and chiselled abs.”
Recalling his six-pack abs journey, Bir adds, “For five months, I strictly followed a calorie deficit diet, nearly 10k steps of walking every day, healthy sleep hygiene and weight training.” From 25 percent body fat in July 2022, Bir achieved 9 percent in November 2022.
“The real challenge lies in maintaining it,” says Bir.
Maintenance is, however, not the only issue here. It is the toll the body takes as one pushes to maintain extremely low body fat.
To have visible abs (six-packs or eight packs), very low body fat percentage is a must. The common way people lose body fat is by following a calorie-deficit diet (consuming fewer calories than the body burns in a day) and working out, explains Anita Shenoy, a fitness trainer (certified by American Council on Exercise) from Bengaluru.
However, managing six or eight packs or chiselled abs is never a true indicator of one’s fitness.
“It can be detrimental to one’s physical and mental health,” says Anita.
Body fat percentage: How much is healthy?
Fat is essential for maintaining good health, and even pro athletes do not maintain extremely low levels of body fat for prolonged periods.
“Not many know that seasoned bodybuilders also have an off-season for their diet wherein they consume healthy portions of fat,” says Ashish Paurana, type 2 diabetes and weight loss specialist from Bengaluru.
“Chiselled abs become visible at different percentages for men and women,” adds Paurana. “Among men and women, genetic predisposition and body composition also contribute.”
Excessive body fats can lead to obesity-related health complications, but insufficient fat can compromise organ protection and overall physiological function, advises Dr Jatin Kothari, director, Nephrology and chief consultant, Real Transplant Medicine, Nanavati Max Hospital, Mumbai.
Body fat percentage: How to measure
“In India, the most readily available apparatus for evaluating the body fat percentage is the body composition machine,” explains Paurana.
It provides accurate measurements and readings regarding the fat content in the body and their concentrations. “Generally for men, the fat concentration is comparatively higher in the stomach. For women, it will be in the thighs and gluteal region,” adds Paurana.
Ill effects of low body fat percentage
Despite the aesthetic appeal and the perception of fitness that it exudes, experts discourage maintaining a low body fat percentage for long duration. Here is how it impacts us:
Overworked kidneys: “Excessive amounts of protein in food as well as in the form of protein shakes can produce higher levels of urea and creatinine,” explains Dr Kothari. He adds, “Fat-burning supplements may contain diuretics which increases the urine production. This leaves the kidneys overworked.”
Dehydration, a common side-effect of intensive dieting and training, can further increase the risk of kidney complications, explains Dr Kothari. This can be especially dangerous for those with preexisting kidney conditions.
Nutrient deficiencies: Vitamins are either water or fat soluble. Fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, D, E, and K) require fat for optimal absorption. “A low body fat percentage hinders vitamin absorption, and increases risk of vitamin deficiencies”, says Paurana.
Weakened immunity: Depriving the body of essential fat can weaken the immune system. A 2000 study shows low intake of fats and other essential micronutrients can increase the risk of infections.
Hormonal fluctuations: “A healthy fat percentage helps regulate hormonal functions in the body, especially for women,” says Anita.
Depriving the body of a healthy amount of fat can affect the reproductive health, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, skin, hair and bone health in women. “It also increases the risk of bone issues such as osteoporosis or osteopenia in women,” warns Bir.
Sexual functions: “Men who try to achieve a very low body fat percentage can suffer from low sex drive and in some cases, sexual dysfunctions such as erectile dysfunction,” says Bir.
Mental health issues: Following a calorie-deficit diet for longer periods can adversely affect mental health. “The deprivation of many forms of foods could induce anxiety, sadness, negative feelings and the need for emotional eating in many,” warns Bir.
In some individuals who have achieved or nearly achieved low body fat percent, the fear of gaining weight can lead to bouts of exercise addiction, notions of body dysmorphia, anorexia or other eating disorders.
Ashish also points out in some cases, individuals develop constant cravings or hunger pangs or other adverse conditions as they try to push the bar further.
Reshmi Batra, 46, a woman entrepreneur from Bengaluru, managed to lose 15kg between January 2022 and August 2022. Her body fat percentage in August 2022 was 28. However, she tried to limit her diet further. She experienced immense hunger pangs and hair loss.
“I knew I was pushing the bar,” recalls Batra. “So, I was advised by medical specialists to not go further.”
Batra’s body fat percentage has been hovering around 28 percent since 2022. “I feel this is my best version of fitness and I do not have the feeling of missing out on any food,” she adds.
Social deprivation: Being on a low-fat, no carb and high protein diet often limits an individual from most appetizing food served in social gatherings. Thus, one of the common outcomes during this phase is voluntary or involuntary social isolation. In the long run, Bir points out, “it can affect the social and psychological well-being” of the individual.
Bir gives an example of his own journey to illustrate how healthy body fat can be maintained without depriving one of the joys of eating. “After achieving a 9 percent body fat percentage, I gradually altered my diet. Today, I occasionally eat a dessert or a biryani to feel good. I have also maintained my body fat between 12-15 percent,” he says.
Balance key be it fat percentage or diet
Bir recommends maintaining a positive and balanced mindset as well as diet while trying to reduce body fat and maintaining it in the healthy range. He advises:
- Include multiple macronutrients; do not limit to only solid or liquid protein. Solid proteins can make one feel more full than liquid proteins.
- To avoid feelings of deprivation and cravings, follow a structured diet plan with a tinge of flexibility and team it up with exercises.
- Maintain a healthy body fat percentage that allows you to enjoy good food occasionally.
- Maintaining a low body fat percentage for more than a year can be detrimental to health, say experts.
- Along with nutritional deficiencies, weakened immunity, and hormonal fluctuations, it could cause hunger pangs, gastronomical deprivation and gastrointestinal issues.