‘Lose body fat’: it’s right at the top of the health and fitness goals list for many of us. It’s not hard to see why—often, it’s what is needed in order to achieve that lean, fit AF look. Plus, it’s crucial to keep our body fat at a healthy level for our overall wellness, especially visceral fat (around the organs). However, it’s when we start to get to that point where we have poppin’ abs that we hit of a health grey area, especially when it comes to fertility. The fact is, there is such a thing as too low body fat for women—and it’s probably higher than you think!
What is a healthy body fat % for women?
Body fat percentage is a far more accurate way of tracking your body composition than just your weight or BMI. It gives you a breakdown of how much of your overall mass is fat or muscle, as well as bone. In order to get an accurate reading, you need to have a DEXA scan, hydrostatic weighing or calliper testing from an experienced practitioner. There are other, more readily available methods for having your body composition measured (like machines that use bioelectrical impedance) but these are nowhere near as accurate.
So, what kind of body fat % should you be aiming for? While it varies from person to person, the below from Oxygen Mag is a good rule of thumb.
Top athletes: 15 to 20%
Fit women: 21 to 24%
Healthy/acceptable: 25 to 32%
Overweight: 33% plus
So, for the average woman who’s working out a few times per week and eating relatively healthy, around 21 to 25% is a good, sustainable ballpark figure. However, most professional fitness models and even many of the Instagram models are well below 15%—for many women, that’s where you need to be to get that shredded abs look.
But how low is too low? “You need at least 3% body fat on your body just to live,” explains Kathleen Laquale, PhD, athletic trainer at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. “Drop below 15 percent for a long time, and you risk losing your period, developing osteoporosis and suffering general fatigue. ”
As Kathleen mentioned, many women lose their period when their body fat drops below 15% for an extended period of time. This is known as amenorrhea and it happens because your body’s estrogen levels drop too low and the energy systems needed for ovulation shut down. In order to be diagnosed with amenorrhea, you generally need to have missed 2-3 periods, and the other symptoms include:
Feeling more cold than normal
Lower resting heart rate
Excess facial hair
As far as researchers know, losing your period doesn’t have any long-term impact on your fertility. It does, however, lead to transient (temporary) infertility. It can take a good six months for your period to return and for your fertility to go back to normal.
However, that’s not to say that losing your period is safe, healthy or normal, even if you have no plans of trying to conceive. Amenorrhea has been linked to a range of other health issues. When you’re in your 20 or 30s, that’s when your body is in peak bone-building mode. Estrogen is essential for building strong bones and if you’re not getting enough of it, it can lead to weak, brittle bones and increase your risk of injury or conditions like osteoporosis. It can also lead to fatigue, low energy, disturbed sleep, skin changes and poor digestion.
It’s for these reasons that most fitness models (as well as some athletes) have off seasons, where they return to a healthy body fat percentage. As for those Instagram models who seem to be perpetually shredded all year round? Well, either they’re genetically blessed with a body that looks leaner at a healthy body fat %, or they’re putting themselves at risk of a range of health issues (or, they just get ripped for a couple of photo shoots per year, where they take enough photos to fill their feed for months!).
When it comes to optimal wellness, your best bet is always going to shoot for a healthy body fat range—and chat to your doc if you notice any irregularities with your period.