The Flaws In Measuring Fat
I’ve had some devastating news. I’m so fat that I pose a risk management problem for my employers! I now need to be regularly weighed and measured in order to monitor my fat levels, and potentially be placed on a monitored diet and fitness regime.
Every now and again we are required to work in austere conditions; sometimes hot, sometimes cold, quite often carrying lots of equipment. Regardless of the ability to pass fitness tests, our body composition puts us at risk of suffering temperate injuries. If we are dangerously underweight we could be at risk in cold climates and if we are significantly overweight we carry an increased risk of suffering from heat illnesses.
According to The Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, there are many factors that affect the risk factors for heat illness in the hot Collective Training Environment; included in these are: increased risk by body composition scoring; inadequate time for heat acclimatisation; and insufficient briefing about the casualty evacuation. Despite this paper recognising that intrinsic (internal) factors were quite low compared to extrinsic (external), the reaction has been to place significantly more emphasis on the individual (intrinsic), rather than the Chain of Command (extrinsic).
This emphasis has placed focus on the body composition scoring matrix which plots your Body Mass Index (BMI) score against your waist measurement. This gives you your resultant risk level and associated mitigation measures against it.
If you didn’t know what the BMI is, it is an index that charts your height against your weight in order to show you how fat you are. It was created in the 1830s by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet and is said to estimate how fat you are by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. It does not actually measure composition at all. Muscle is significantly denser than fat; therefore, someone with a significant amount of muscle mass will always end up with a higher BMI than someone with a majority proportion of fat at the same height. In addition, the average height of a chap in 1830 was 166.7cm. Compare that with 176.8cm for a man in 1980. This extra 10cm – and the associated increase in body mass – will significantly distort the results of the index. No wonder then that this measure is being distinctly rubbished by the majority of the medical community, in fact by everyone except the government. Waist measurement on the other hand does have some merit but only as an indicator for further medical checks, not as an accurate composition measure in it’s own right.
Plotting a flawed score against an indicator will lead to distorted results at best, completely inaccurate at worst. In fact many studies have shown that a matrix which plots BMI against waist circumference has often classed people with large waists as ‘no risk’ purely because their BMI score has saved them; yet other measurements like the waist to height ratio has placed them at significant risk of obesity related issues.
The bottom line is that I have fallen foul of this system and there’s nothing I can do but go along with it. I need to lose 17kg of weight, grow 8 inches, or cut 6 inches off my waist. Regardless of the fact that I can pass my fitness tests and ignoring the fact that I have 21% body fat – smack bang in the middle of average – my quite short stature and muscular frame has worked against me. I definitely have room for improvement, I definitely want that 21% to be in the mid teens but I’ll come to that in a minute. The Army cannot afford to buy accurate body composition pods like they have in sports science labs, but they can train Physical Training Instructors (PTIs) to take accurate body fold calliper measurements that provide a much better understanding of someone’s composition in order to gain a much more accurate risk score when combined with the waist to height ratio.
Why I’m Fat
I’ve had a love hate with food: I love food but hate how fat it makes me. My relationship with food is awful; I have now admitted that I’m an emotional eater, and I’ve talked about my addiction to post carb serotonin, but I sometimes think it is much, much simpler than that.
Exercise has never been a problem for me. I’m often training in the gym, or running, or circuit training, or doing something; having 4 compulsory fitness sessions a week helps. The thing that makes me fat is my over indulgence in high sugar, high fat, carb dense foods; but I’ve noticed that I tend to eat these foods when I’m at the peak of experiencing an emotion. At the moment, and for pretty much the last 3 years the one thing that is most prevalent is stress. With stress comes cortisol. Cortisol is one of a group of hormones referred to as glucocorticoids. These hormones are named for their effects on glucose production. Among its effects, high cortisol levels stimulate your liver to convert amino acids into glucose to create a ready supply of energy for your cells to deal with increased stress.
To reduce some very significant science into an over simplified sentence, carbohydrates reduce the amount of cortisol production. Eat too few carbs and your testosterone cortisol ratio is upset leading to decreased athletic performance and increased cortisol production; eat too many carbs and you lead to oxidative stress (as well as bloating, water retention and if you’re in a calorie surplus, body fat production).
When I’m at my most annoyed, stressed, frustrated, being a parent, I crave high fat/high carb foods like thick crust pizza or donner kebabs. When I’m calm, relaxed, content, I can graze on high protein low fat foods or even fast. For ease I won’t get into the difference between good saturated fat, bad saturated fat, trans fats, good unsaturated fats, and bad unsaturated fats, needless to say I just crave all the fats.
But recently I’ve been looking at this problem with much simpler perspective, maybe it’s because I’ve started wearing glasses and can see things more clearly, but the bottom line is I enjoy all the foods that are “bad” for me and sometimes (in fact more often than not recently) they are all I have to look forward to in my day. I hate my job but am pension trapped; I’m in a very difficult situation in my relationship with my wife trying to care for her through her mental health struggles; and not being a natural parent means that every day I struggle trying to bond with and “like” my children. Having a stuffed crust meat feast pizza, or that deliciously greasy half pounder with cheese is, on occasion, the only bit of satisfaction that I get to have in my day.
I can lose weight; I can lose body fat whilst gaining muscle mass; I know the nutritional science and biomechanics to support a body transformation programme; what I don’t have is the mental strength to resist the urge for “happiness” that comes from a fast food junk meal. The sad fact is that when I’m on my own I do better. When it’s just me I can lose fat at a rapid rate, and I’m by no means blaming my wife and my kids for making me fat, it’s my weakness, lack of discipline, and inconsistency that makes me reach for the junk, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say they were the stimulus for it. But unless I stop things now, I’m going to lose professional credibility, my pride, and – as another friend of mine has recently died from lifestyle induced heart failure, and a younger cousin suffers from a lifestyle induced stroke – potentially worse.
Now that I’ve just put myself on a downer, who wants a grilled cheese sandwich?