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Weight Control

Awareness Programs Needed To Improve Understanding of Body Fat

Most Americans have misconceptions about the amount of body fat considered "healthy" for individuals, a recent study indicates.

Those misconceptions appear to be more prevalent among men, who are more likely than women to believe that low body fat is healthier, according to the survey by Tanita Corporation.

Body fat has a negative connotation for most people surveyed, which may explain, in part, why respondents underestimated the amount of body fat considered healthy, the corporation noted. More than half (55 percent) of men and one-third of women surveyed believe a man should have a body fat percentage of no more than 16 percent. In comparison, fitness experts recommend a target range of 17 percent to 23 percent body fat for healthy adult men.

Moreover, nearly half (49 percent) of men and 35 percent of women thought a desired body fat level for women was 19 percent or less, according to the survey. That figure is significantly lower than the recommended body fat levels of 20 percent to 27 percent for healthy adult women.

Almost a third of the respondents did not know the healthy fat range for adults, the survey revealed.

"Monitoring changes in both body fat and weight on a regular basis provides a more dependable picture of fitness than weight-watching alone," said Dr. Steven B. Heymsfield, deputy director of the Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital at Columbia University in New York. "Through a healthy diet, a comprehensive exercise program and regular monitoring of body fat, individuals can achieve a body fat percentage that falls within the acceptable range for good health."

Adults also have unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to lose body fat through diet and exercise, the survey found. A majority of all respondents (52 percent) mistakenly believe that it is possible to reduce body fat by at least two percentage points within a month's time, through a regimen of diet and exercise. Seventeen percent think it is possible to decrease body fat by at least five percentage points in a month's time, the survey found.

These perceptions may lead to disillusionment, as in actuality it takes at least a month of dieting and exercise to produce a change of one percentage point.

"Men and women have a poor understanding of the relationship between fat, fitness and body weight, and expect a quick fix to reducing the amount of body fat they have," said Jeff Kahn of Tanita Corporation. "As new technology has made it possible to measure body fat at home, we expect increased awareness and understanding."

The survey also found:

Adults surveyed were more likely to think they are "too fat," even if they are not overweight. When comparing body weight and body fat, 71 percent of those surveyed described their current body weight as healthy, compared with 55 percent who described their current percentage of body fat as healthy.

Overall, Americans are not as knowledge-able about body fat as they are about body weight. One in five (21 percent) said they "don't know" if their current percentage of body fat is healthy or unhealthy, while only 7 percent could not describe the status of their body weight.

Younger adults tend to be slightly better informed than older adults about basic body fat facts. They also are more likely to consider their current body weight and body fat levels as healthy. They are probably correct, study authors noted, since experts estimate that as a natural part of the aging process, the average person loses half a pound of muscle each year while simultaneously gaining one-and-a-half pounds of fat.

Almost one-third of surveyed adults (29 percent) have had their body fat measured, most by hand-held calipers. The likelihood that adults have had their body fat measured decreased with age. However, most adults are concerned about their body fat and indicated they would like to take action to monitor it, according to the survey.

The vast majority of American adults (82 percent) believes body fat is acquired through a combination of heredity, eating high-fat foods and infrequent exercise. Two-thirds believe regular exercise is the most important factor in achieving a healthy body, followed by limiting fat and calorie intake.

Although men are more likely to think that low body fat is healthier, they have more of a grasp of the connection between body fat and body weight, the survey found: Men are more likely than women to know that losing weight actually can increase a person's percentage of body fat, and that losing body weight does not necessarily result in losing body fat.

Address: Tanita Corporation, 2625 South Clearbrook Drive, Arlington Heights, IL 60005.

© 2001 Health Resources Publishing