Professor: Body fat percentage, distribution more important than appearance and weight

Rachel Lew

When it comes to health, body fat percentage and distribution are more important than appearance and weight, according to a visiting nutrition professor.

David Heber, a nutrition professor from the University of California at Los Angeles, spoke Thursday about the importance of considering body fat content when fighting obesity.

Body mass index, or BMI, provides information about patients’ height and weight. However, BMI does not factor in differences in body fat content or distribution, according to Heber.

“You can look thin on the outside and still have a high percentage of body fat,” Heber said. “Body composition is more important than body weight.”

Monica Milonovich, a lecturer in the School of Human Ecology, said the BMI number is not sufficient for measuring body composition.

“It’s possible for two people to look very different and have the same BMI,” Milonovich said. “A person with high body fat can have the same BMI as a very muscular person. It’s eye-opening.”

Katherine Vuong, nutrition senior, said people focus on appearance without always considering health. 

“Our society strives for to be skinny and fit a certain dress size, but dress sizes don’t necessarily dictate how much body fat you have,” Vuong said. “It’s about how much lean muscle you have.”

It is not only body fat percentage that matters, but also where fat is located on the body, Heber said. Sumo wrestlers, for example, have body fat concentrated in their lower body, allowing them to be what is known as ‘fat and fit,’ according to Heber.

“Fat in the lower body, or subcutaneous fat, is friendly fat,” Heber said. “Excessive fat stored in the upper body, or visceral fat, is harmful.”

In addition to consuming the required amount of protein each day, it is important to exercise regularly, especially for older adults, according to Heber.

“As adults age, they have less lean mass and a higher body fat percentage,” Heber said. “As metabolism slows down, older adults can eat the same number of calories they always have, but still gain weight.”

Heber said many people try to lose weight through crash diets, but cautioned that fighting obesity requires a long-term commitment.

“Dieting isn’t like treating an ear infection,” Heber said. “It’s not seven days to a better body. It’s something you do for the rest of your life.”