Thursday, December 2, 2010

How lean should one be?

Loss of muscle mass is associated with aging. It is also associated with the metabolic syndrome, together with excessive body fat gain. It is safe to assume that having low muscle and high fat mass, at the same time, is undesirable.

The extreme opposite of that, achievable though natural means, would be to have as much muscle as possible and as low body fat as possible. People who achieve that extreme often look a bit like “buff skeletons”.

This post assumes that increasing muscle mass through strength training and proper nutrition is healthy. It looks into body fat levels, specifically how low body fat would have to be for health to be maximized.

I am happy to acknowledge that quite often I am working on other things and then become interested in a topic that is brought up by Richard Nikoley, and discussed by his readers (I am one of them). This post is a good example of that.

Obesity and the diseases of civilization

Obesity is strongly associated with the diseases of civilization, of which the prototypical example is perhaps type 2 diabetes. So much so that sometimes the impression one gets is that without first becoming obese, one cannot develop any of the diseases of civilization.

But this is not really true. For example, diabetes type 1 is also one of the diseases of civilization, and it often strikes thin people. Diabetes type 1 results from the destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas by a person’s own immune system. The beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin, which regulates blood glucose levels.

Still, obesity is undeniably a major risk factor for the diseases of civilization. It seems reasonable to want to move away from it. But how much? How lean should one be to be as healthy as possible? Given the ubiquity of U-curve relationships among health variables, there should be a limit below which health starts deteriorating.

Is the level of body fat of the gentleman on the photo below (from: low enough? His name is Fedor; more on him below. I tend to admire people who excel in narrow fields, be they intellectual or sport-related, even if I do not do anything remotely similar in my spare time. I admire Fedor.

Let us look at some research and anecdotal evidence to see if we can answer the question above.

The buff skeleton look is often perceived as somewhat unattractive

Being in the minority is not being wrong, but should make one think. Like Richard Nikoley’s, my own perception of the physique of men and women is that, the leaner they are, the better; as long as they also have a reasonable amount of muscle. That is, in my mind, the look of a stage-ready competitive natural bodybuilder is close to the healthiest look possible.

The majority’s opinion, however, seems different, at least anecdotally. The majority of women that I hear or read voicing their opinions on this matter seem to find the “buff skeleton” look somewhat unattractive, compared with a more average fit or athletic look. The same seems to be true for perceptions of males about females.

A little side note. From an evolutionary perspective, perceptions of ancestral women about men must have been much more important than perceptions of ancestral men about women. The reason is that the ancestral women were the ones applying sexual selection pressures in our ancestral past.

For the sake of discussion, let us define the buff skeleton look as one of a reasonably muscular person with a very low body fat percentage; pretty much only essential fat. That would be 10-13 percent for women, and 5-8 percent for men.

The average fit look would be 21-24 percent for women, and 14-17 percent for men. Somewhere in between, would be what we could call the athletic look, namely 14-20 percent for women, and 6-13 percent for men. These levels are exactly the ones posted on this Wikipedia article on body fat percentages, at the time of writing.

From an evolutionary perspective, attractiveness to members of the opposite sex should be correlated with health. Unless we are talking about a costly trait used in sexual selection by our ancestors; something analogous to the male peacock’s train.

But costly traits are usually ornamental, and are often perceived as attractive even in exaggerated forms. What prevents male peacock trains from becoming the size of a mountain is that they also impair survival. Otherwise they would keep growing. The peahens find them sexy.

Being ripped is not always associated with better athletic performance

Then there is the argument that if you carried some extra fat around the waist, then you would not be able to fight, hunt etc. as effectively as you could if you were living 500,000 years ago. Evolution does not “like” that, so it is an unnatural and maladaptive state achieved by modern humans.

Well, certainly the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is not the best point of comparison for Paleolithic life, but it is not such a bad model either. Look at this photo of Fedor Emelianenko (on the left, clearly not so lean) next to Andrei Arlovski (fairly lean). Fedor is also the one on the photo at the beginning of this post.

Fedor weighed about 220 lbs at 6’; Arlovski 250 lbs at 6’4’’. In fact, Arlovski is one of the leanest and most muscular MMA heavyweights, and also one of the most highly ranked. Now look at Fedor in action (see this YouTube video), including what happened when Fedor fought Arlovski, at around the 4:28 mark. Fedor won by knockout.

Both Fedor and Arlovski are heavyweights; which means that they do not have to “make weight”. That is, they do not have to lose weight to abide by the regulations of their weight category. Since both are professional MMA fighters, among the very best in the world, the weight at which they compete is generally the weight that is associated with their best performance.

Fedor was practically unbeaten until recently, even though he faced a very high level of competition. Before Fedor there was another professional fighter that many thought was from Russia, and who ruled the MMA heavyweight scene for a while. His name is Igor Vovchanchyn, and he is from the Ukraine. At 5’8’’ and 230 lbs in his prime, he was a bit chubby. This YouTube video shows him in action; and it is brutal.

A BMI of about 25 seems to be the healthiest for long-term survival

Then we have this post by Stargazey, a blogger who likes science. Toward the end the post she discusses a study suggesting that a body mass index (BMI) of about 25 seems to be the healthiest for long-term survival. That BMI is between normal weight and overweight. The study suggests that both being underweight or obese is unhealthy, in terms of long-term survival.

The BMI is calculated as an individual’s body weight divided by the square of the individual’s height. A limitation of its use here is that the BMI is a more reliable proxy for body fat percentage for women than for men, and can be particularly misleading when applied to muscular men.

The traditional Okinawans are not super lean

The traditional Okinawans (here is a good YouTube video) are the longest living people in the world. Yet, they are not super lean, not even close. They are not obese either. The traditional Okinawans are those who kept to their traditional diet and lifestyle, which seems to be less and less common these days.

There are better videos on the web that could be used to illustrate this point. Some even showing shirtless traditional karate instructors and students from Okinawa, which I had seen before but could not find again. Nearly all of those karate instructors and students were a bit chubby, but not obese. By the way, karate was invented in Okinawa.

The fact that the traditional Okinawans are not ripped does not mean that the level of fat that is healthy for them is also healthy for someone with a different genetic makeup. It is important to remember that the traditional Okinawans share a common ancestry.

What does this all mean?

Some speculation below, but before that let me tell this: as counterintuitive as it may sound, excessive abdominal fat may be associated with higher insulin sensitivity in some cases. This post discusses a study in which the members of a treatment group were more insulin sensitive than the members of a control group, even though the former were much fatter; particularly in terms of abdominal fat.

It is possible that the buff skeleton look is often perceived as somewhat unattractive because of cultural reasons, and that it is associated with the healthiest state for humans. However, it seems a bit unlikely that this applies as a general rule to everybody.

Another possibility, which appears to be more reasonable, is that the buff skeleton look is healthy for some, and not for others. After all, body fat percentage, like fat distribution, seems to be strongly influenced by our genes. We can adapt in ways that go against genetic pressures, but that may be costly in some cases.

There is a great deal of genetic variation in the human species, and much of it may be due to relatively recent evolutionary pressures.

Life is not that simple!


Buss, D.M. (1995). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Miller, G.F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. (1997). The Handicap Principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.