How Lean Is Too Lean?

Body fat measurements that put your health in danger

Go back to magazine pictures from the 90s and 2000's and you can see that there is a movement towards getting leaner and more "ripped". With body composition meters being more accessible, the quest to lose kilograms has turned into the quest to drop body fat percentage. But what is too low?


When starting out on a health or fitness journey, many of us set goals for ourselves to accomplish. They might involve building muscle, getting stronger, improving flexibility, improving endurance or conditioning, body recomposition, or, for many, the goal might simply be to lose weight or lose fat.


If you fall into that last category, surely you know that you’re not alone. After all, the diet industry worldwide was worth a combined US$ 189.8 billion in 2018. And, if lowering your body fat percentage is a goal of yours, it is certainly a worthy cause to commit yourself to, as the benefits of losing weight include everything from better mobility and less joint pain to a lower risk of diseases and even certain cancers.


The issue arises, however, when the commitment to getting lean - and the weight loss itself - goes too far.


How Lean Is Too Lean?

Many people are unaware that a low body-fat percentage, or one that is unnaturally low for their specific body type can have lasting health consequences.

Carrying too low of a body fat percentage can mess with your hormones, your energy and your metabolism.

It can cause females to have irregular menstrual cycles or lose their cycle altogether, for both men and women it can weaken their bones resulting in bone density loss and bone mineral loss, and it can even affect fertility levels.


There are a number of factors that contribute to these potentially negative health effects that work synergistically when you also have a low body fat percentage - things like stress, a lack of quality sleep, excessive weight loss over a short period of time and other lifestyle factors all come into play.


Is The Six-Pack Worth It?

According to a study performed by the Harvard Center for Population Studies, though the body fat percentage that triggers these issues does vary from person to person, for women it is thought to be between 17 and 22%.


Being too lean can significantly affect and slow your metabolic rate, it can negatively affect your immune system, increase fatigue and affect your gut health - since all of these things are controlled by hormones.


When it comes to performance in the gym, a body fat percentage that is too low for your body type can increase your risk of injury, stress fractures, cause you to lose strength or endurance gains, reduce your ability to adequately recover from your training sessions, and take injuries longer to heal.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there, either. Being too lean can cause hair loss, dry skin, brittle nails and even negatively affect your mood. The good news is that all is takes to reverse these issues is increasing your body fat percentages! If you think you might be experiencing issues related to being too lean or not carrying enough body fat, take the time to reduce or restructure your training volume and to get any disordered eating habits under control. Once your hormones naturally start to balance themselves back out, your energy levels, periods, fertility levels, metabolism and gym performance all being to improve and gradually return to normal within a few months.


Being too lean is, in fact, an issue that many athletes and non-athletes alike will deal with at some point in their fitness journey. It is a very possible outcome with real and negative health consequences. One of the best things you can do is listen to and stay in tune with your body, especially when on a quest to lose body fat.


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