Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Is There such a Thing as an Ideal Body Weight?

As a troubleshooter, I love hard numbers, ideals, and useful theory. This information gives me an important set of benchmarks to measure my performance (or the performance of the systems I maintain). When it comes to diet and lifestyle, I like to use several health markers to measure the effectiveness of the theories I employ. From blood glucose to hip-to-waist ratio, I use every health standard I can find to see where I stand. If I discover that something is off (like body temperature, for instance), then I start to investigate. That's just how I am and this approach has helped me to stop (and often reverse) many health problems without the use of medication.

In this post, I'll be asking the question: Is there such a thing as an ideal body weight? In America, maintaining weight is so difficult that many people believe that they were born heavy. After all of my research, I can't agree with this belief. To me, if you are overweight, then you are displaying one of the many symptoms of dysfunctional health.

So, I believe that everyone has their own ideal body weight; but if a person is over (or under) this weight, then their diet and lifestyle are preventing their body from maintaining a healthier weight.

Body Weight Set Points
Before I get too far, let me recap how I believe your brain maintains body weight. Your body weight is not randomly assigned; it is established by your DNA and by feedback from your environment. All of this feedback determines a body weight set point that your brain identifies as ideal. This set point is always changing as you interact with your environment.

Your DNA establishes a low end for body weight. If you did absolutely nothing, everyday, then your brain would fall back to this minimum body weight. Up until recently it was impossible to do nothing and still survive. So, under normal circumstances, as a person interacts with their environment (hunting, building, moving), the brain uses this physical activity as feedback, increasing or decreasing body weight to build just enough muscle to easily accomplish daily tasks.

An over-simplified way of describing how the brain adapts to any environment is this: It has a default body weight set point that is defined by a person's genetic code. As this person interacts with their environment, the brain will redefine its body weight set point to adapt to that environment.

However, in the West, if someone is overweight, then the brain is unable to get accurate feedback from the environment. This feedback interference simulates starvation, causing the brain to slowly adjust its body weight set point much higher than normal. Essentially, even if a person can see in the mirror that they are not at a healthy body weight, the brain cannot. This results in a person maintaining a body weight that is too heavy.

Determining Your Ideal Body Weight
I believe that most people naturally achieve their ideal body weights in high school, when they are usually most active. However, this isn't the most reliable gauge because obesity now affects newer generations at younger ages. This is where the Body Mass Index (BMI) can be helpful.

With a few exceptions (like humans who live in cold climates), it seems that a person's height is a good predictor for their weight. This was first observed in the West during the mid-1800s and reduced to a simple formula by Adolphe Quetelet as the BMI. In 1972, Ancel Keys found that BMI was a good proxy for health and established a chart that represented four categories of height-to-weight ratios: Underweight, Healthy Weight, Overweight, and Obese. (1)

Click here for larger image.

While BMI does not account for body fat, it can give you a good idea of where your ideal body weight could be. A BMI from 19-24.9 is considered a healthy weight (many non-industrial human populations that enjoy their traditional diet and lifestyle usually have a BMI of 19-20 [2]). When guessing what your ideal weight might be, I always aim for a BMI of 23 (which is in the middle of the Healthy Weight category). However, your ideal body weight can be a BMI anywhere between 19 and 24.9.

(Note: Weight lifters and bodybuilders can go above 24.9 and still be healthy. This is because they usually have a low body fat percentage).

Here's an example: If an overweight person (who is 70 inches tall) improves their diet and lifestyle, then they should expect their body weight to stabilize at about 160 pounds (which is a BMI of 23; see chart above). If this person is currently 200 pounds, then they will have to lose 40 pounds to reach a body weight of 160 pounds. If they lose one pound per week (which is normal when switching to a Paleo-like diet), then they should stop losing weight in about 10 months, stabilizing at 160 pounds (give or take a few of pounds).

Keep in mind that there is more to a healthy body than body weight. It is entirely possible for someone to have a healthy weight according to the BMI, but be obese according to their body fat percentage. For me, body fat is the only way to measure obesity.

Body Fat Percentage
Once you select what your ideal body weight might be from the BMI table above, you then have to figure out your body fat percentage. This can be done with an electronic body fat analyzer, or you can see if your local Health and Wellness Center (HAWC) has a BodPod.

Here are the health categories as they relate to body fat percentage.  To maximize health, everyone should aim for the fitness or athletes categories.

The table above defines healthy body fat percentages. In reality, all categories that are not At Risk are fine. If you find that your weight is healthy, but your body fat is not, then you will have to start building muscle to get rid of that extra fat (a concept I call body composition exchange).

What you should NEVER do when trying to adjust your body fat percentage is "burn" extra calories with cardio. This is impossible in the long term. Once you get to your ideal body weight (due to diet changes), you have to use an exercise program that concentrates on building muscle, which will then replace/displace fat (up to a point). I'll get into adjusting body composition in a later post.

Personally, I try to adjust my body composition through sprints, volume training, and heavy weight lifting to encourage my body to carry a body fat percentage that is in the Fitness or Athletes categories (currently I'm in the Athletes category). If I do any cardio, it is very-low intensity running (2-3 miles) once or twice a week.

Note for women
You will NOT become huge and muscular if you lift heavy weights! You don't naturally have enough testosterone to build bulky muscles (among other things). If you are at a healthy weight, then heavy exercises will only help you trade fat for muscle, giving you a more athletic figure. The picture below better articulates what I mean.

To identify your "ideal" body weight, you can see what weight correlates to your height and a BMI of 23. After changing your diet to one that is more Paleo-like (but NOT carb-phobic), you should slowly drop down to a weight that is pretty close to a BMI of 23.

Next you have to measure your body fat percentage. If it is not in the Fitness or Athletic range, then start using a weight-lifting and sprinting program designed to build muscle. For every percent of muscle you gain, you will likely lose a percentage of fat (this happens if you gain muscle without gaining weight in the process).

Once you get to your ideal body weight, and establish a healthy body fat percentage, then a healthy diet and lifestyle should help you keep them for decades!
Bob Delmonteque in 2004 at the age of 84!

1. Body Mass Index. [Online] [Cited: March 4, 2012.]
2. Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease. Ames, Iowa : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. My brain tells me i should be smaller so i can support athleticism more. I am naturally active, so the bulk only slows me down. I beleive thats why i find myself looking smaller than what i really am. Its hard out there for a... recreational weight lifter. Trying to find the "ideal" amount of repetitions to optimally adapt to an increase/maintainance in muscle and strength. All the extra training seems to be a "win-win" utilizing more calories, but in reality it saps gains by applying more stressors and taking away from energy needed for recovery. I am just too addicted to activity. I would beleive and theoretically it would be thought to be more active at your weight or lighter weight before you increase the amount on your skeletal system, unless it occurs naturally. That way you adapt with a more natural feeling, since science shows that muscular adaptation is far faster than that of ligaments/tendons and skeletals.

    Lift yourself, lift heavy, lift long, lift weights...