How Lean is Too Lean?

June 19, 2011

in Blog, Kristine's Best Tips, My Philosophy, News, Facts, Fitness

Happy Monday!  Hope you’re gearing up to have a great week.  I’ve been meaning to do this post for a long time.  I think its a really important topic and I’ve seen many different opinions on how lean is too lean.

First things first, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about something as simple as being lean vs. losing weight.  They are 2 completely different things, and I cannot stress that more.  Eating to be lean versus eating to lose weight are different strategies all together.  This is from my own experience as well.

calipers.jpgMost traditional ‘dieters’ believe its all about calories in & calories out.  Look at the popular diets like Weight Watchers that follow this method. While that is somewhat true, choosing the right types of foods matters.  I don’t know any lean person that stays that way by eating a high carb and high fat diet with little to no protein.  If there is someone out there, I’d love to see it. Perhaps they are that way due to a freakishly high metabolism or crazy genetics.  If your trying to look more lean, toned, firm (whatever you want to call it), macros do matter.  What are macros?  All the nutrients your familiar with: protein, carbs (including sugar) & fat.  Typically becoming lean is all about protein.  Being lean is due to having adequate muscle on your body, achieved through weight bearing exercise (like weight training) and proper nutrition.  If you don’t have the muscle, you will just look skinny.  I don’t necessarily think everyone needs to diligently count every macro and
calorie, but if your looking to reach a specific goal, it will definitely get you there much faster.

Ok, so now I’ve explained the difference between losing weight vs. being lean, lets move on.

I searched the internet to find some visual charts with some of the ‘government’ guidelines in regards to body fat.

Here’s what I found…

Thumbnail image for BodyFatRangeChartLarge.jpg


As you can see, the guidelines are much different for females versus males.  Women are supposed to have more body fat.  Its is so we can bear children, and it also comes down to hormones.  Women have different hormones than men, and those hormones need fat in order to
function properly.  Take all the essential fat away, things can go haywire, including our hormones (especially estrogen!)

Fitness Competitors

Since I’ve had my share of competing in fitness competitions, I know what its like to get down to a lower body fat level.  Anyone that’s competed knows the level of dedication it takes to get down to that level (both through exercise and a strict diet).  Most competitors also know
that this is TEMPORARY.  This level of leanness is not meant to be sustained long term.  I’m not exactly sure what my body fat actually got down to, but if I were to guess, I would probably 10-11%.  Again, I don’t think competing is for everyone.  Its not healthy long term, and
if its not done properly and adequate rest periods aren’t taken, it can have some serious consequences.

Here’s another chart I found that gives some rough guidelines of various athletes and their typical body fat levels.

Thumbnail image for body_fat_percentage_athletes.bmp

What’s the Right Number?

I have no idea.  It is really individual.  Everyone’s body is so different and there can be so many contributing factors.  Some people may be naturally heavier, so for them, being uber lean is not healthy for their body whatsoever.  Whereas some people that are naturally thin, it may not take extremes for them to be lean, and their body will remain healthy.  Referring to the first chart (for example), for a women it states between the age of 20-39, anything under 21% is considered “underfat”.

In my opinion (take it or leave it), anything below 15-16% for a women consistently is not healthy.  Anything lower than that could lead to something called the Female Athlete Triad.

Before I get into what the Triad is, from what I understand, the real true measure of how to measure body fat accurately is through hydrodensitometry (under water weighing).  Click to read more about the various methods.  Calipers are probably the most common method, but it can be very inaccurate, and depending on who does it, you could get a completely different reading every time.

Ok, so what is the Triad?  Female athlete triad is a combination of three conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period), and osteoporosis. A female athlete can have one, two, or all three parts of the triad.  In my opinion, getting to this would mean that you are too lean.

Who Wants This?

– Crankiness
– Hair loss
– Dry skin
– Disordered eating patterns from eating too strict for too long
– Loss of period (while its kind of nice for a bit, it can have some
serious long term side affects)
– Osteoporosis (low estrogen levels lead to weak bones)  who wants a broken hip when they’re 40!
– Infertility
– Extreme fatigue
– Sensitivity to cold
– Stress fractures and muscle injuries
– Low heart rate & blood pressure
– Brittle nails
– Anemia
– Heart problems

Personally, I think the key is determining a realistic and sensible body weight / body fat goal.  Images in the media are not always realistic.  Most fitness cover models are dieting for those photo shoots, or they are taken right before a fitness competition.  Its not how they look walking around everyday. There are a few (eg. Jamie Eason), where somehow they are able to be lean while avoiding all of the issues above.
But this is not realistic for everyone, and that’s ok!  You really have to work with your own body, and maintain healthy and don’t go to the extreme to maintain something that doesn’t work for your body.

Guess what?!  You’re amazing for being you, and yes, we all come in different shapes and sizes and that’s what makes each and every one of us who we are! Embrace that.

If you want some tips for how to get leaner, first place to start is with your nutrition program.  Refer to my Healthy Food Grocery Shopping List.  All these foods contribute to a healthy and lean body!

Yours in Health,


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I'm Kristine Fretwell, busy mom of 2 little girls, author, blogger, and former pro fitness competitor. I love almost any kind of cookie, anything coconut or pumpkin flavored, and Thai food. A perfect day for me is enjoying my family, getting to the gym, and whipping up a new healthy recipe. I've got a collection of over 300 healthy recipes, and other tidbits like fitness and health tips. My recipes have been featured on websites such as Huffington Post, Savvy Mom, Shape and Skinny Scoop.
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  • sweetonnh

    Thank you, great article!

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