The Truth About Being Lean

Is it worth it? Is it healthy?

Losing weight is the goal of the majority of our population – in fact 62% of Canadians have tried to lose five or more pounds at one point in their life. There’s a difference between needing to lose weight for health purposes and dropping your body fat down to a dangerously low level.

First and foremost, your body NEEDS fat to function. Fat is an energy source, it insulates the body to regulate temperature, and it cushions our internal organs. While many people think you lose your fat cells when you lose weight, that’s not actually true. You gain fat cells throughout childhood and the quantity stays constant throughout the rest of your life. When you lose weight, these fat cells shrink in size, but never disappear. Also, you can’t turn fat into muscle – or vice versa.  They’re totally different types of cells.

Men vs. Women

Men are able to function at lower body fat than women can. Women’s bodies carry more fat for reproductive purposes, whether or not you want kids (thanks, nature). Essential levels of body fat are around 8 – 10% for women, and only 2% for men. Even in the sport of bodybuilding, men are able to get their body fat down to that essential level, where women may get down to 8 or 9% at the lowest – remember that this is relative. Because our essential level is higher, a woman’s 8% is the “same” as a man’s 2%.

Remember the difference between men and women is that a man's essential body fat level is much lower than a woman's.

Remember the difference between men and women is that a man’s essential body fat level is much lower than a woman’s.

The Dangers of Being Low BF

Being at an extremely low body fat percent comes at a cost – mentally and physically. In order to get to that low level, an incredibly restrictive diet is often needed for a prolonged length of time. This can be mentally draining and frustrating to people as they have to remove favourite foods from their life, avoid restaurants, and cycle through a small list of foods. This can also lead to nutrient deficiencies as food variety is limited, or whole food groups are removed. With the lower body fat levels you’re more susceptible to getting sick as your immune system is hindered, and your hormones are off balance making you easily irritated or moody (um, yup).

A serious problem which female athletes need to be aware of is the female athlete triad. This condition has three parts to it – disordered eating, amenorrhoea (the loss of your menstrual cycle), and osteoporosis. This condition happens when the athlete has been at a low body fat percent for a prolonged length of time. For example, competitive gymnasts or dancers who maintain their low body fat for years.

Exercise because it's good for you.  You can always be working towards a goal, but that goal shouldn't be based on your own disapproval of your body. Love it for what it can do for you.

Exercise because it’s good for you. You can always be working towards a goal, but that goal shouldn’t be based on your own disapproval of your body. Love it for what it can do for you.

Is it Worth it?

Obviously in the women’s physique category, we get our body fat to a pretty low level (I’m not sure what, exactly, but when you can see muscle fibers, it’s low).  Am I writing this to bash the sport I love? Not at all. As I mentioned above, there’s a big difference between those who hit these extremely low levels for a short period of time (for a purpose such as a competition), and then bring themselves back to a healthy level, compared to those who keep themselves dangerously low for a long time. But, I’m the first to admit and openly tell people that what we do is unhealthy at certain points. I would never tell people the details of my diet to get to that level because it’s not practical for anyone who isn’t competing. We do it with as much education as we can get, and under the direction of other knowledgeable people.

So, what does it feel like? In the last few weeks before a competition, it’s common and normal to feel incredibly fatigued, physically weak, and mentally foggy. I become very forgetful and need to write down EVERYTHING at it enters my head before it disappears for good. I swing from sweating to freezing, my muscles cramp, and normal things become painful when your extra padding is gone – sitting in hard chairs hurts on your butt bones!

One last thing to remember is that everyone has a different tolerance level of body fat. For example, one woman might lose her monthly cycle at 15%, but another will still have hers at 10%. Everyone will look and function differently. A muscular woman will look vastly different at 12% than a woman with very little muscle mass will. There’s nothing right or wrong with this, everyone has their preferences in how they look, but your health should always be your first concern.


Enjoy life with everything in moderation! On that note… I’m going to eat!

About Ashleigh

I'm passionate about health and fitness. I work as a Health Promotion Specialist, a group fitness instructor, and also a coach for physique competitors / weight loss clients. I grew up as a competitive athlete, and have continued with this passion as a Women's Physique competitor. Research and writing is another interest of mine, which I use to share my knowledge with the general public.
This entry was posted in Body Image, Bodybuilding, Education, Fitness, Food, Health, Lifestyle, Mental Health, Motivation, Nutrition, Personal and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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