Low body fat risks: Dangers of having a low body fat percentage

Heather Campbell
 min read

Low body fat risks is something that is not discussed enough, which can be extremely dangerous.

Low body fat risks: Dangers of having a low body fat percentageMany avid athletes, photo models, actors, and bodybuilders want to have as low a fat percentage as possible. And also, more plus-size people strive for the lowest possible fat percentage.

Low body fat is itself as dangerous as high body fat. It is detrimental to health, encourages bulimia and anorexia, injury and illness. Low body fat also leads to fatigue, hormonal imbalances for both men and women (think estrogen and testosterone levels), skin issues and constipation.

But is having the lowest possible fat percentage healthy? When do you speak of too low a fat percentage, and what are the potential consequences? Find out below, as you can still be unhealthy with low body fat!

Low body fat risks: What is a healthy fat percentage?

What is a healthy fat percentage for someone depends on several factors.

For example, the recommendations for women are different from those for men. We speak of a normal fat percentage between 10 and 20% in adult men. For adult women, a normal fat percentage ranges from 20 to 32%.

Did you know that the amount of body fat can affect athletic performance. This is why many athletes strive to lower their weight and/or fat percentage.

Think about runners and triathletes who don’t need to carry much weight during their exercise. Or consider sports where a specific physique is crucial (such as gymnastics, ballet, and bodybuilding).

In other words, in sports for which a low fat percentage is essential to the sport, we often see even lower values.

Consider, for example, men who do bodybuilding. They sometimes have up to 5% fat content when they are competition fit. Female bodybuilders sometimes have a fat content of 8%.

But these low fat percentages can be detrimental to both athletic performance and health.

What constitutes a good fat percentage depends from person to person.

Risks of too low a fat percentage

Inadequate and disturbed eating behavior

Bad and disturbed eating behaviors are not so much a consequence of low fat, but they do often go hand in hand with striving for a lower fat percentage.

To lower fat percentage, you want to lose fat mass and thus create a negative energy balance. In this, however, you can go overboard by going too extreme.

What is a (negative) energy balance?

The ratio of how much you eat to how much you exercise is also called the energy balance. We speak of an energy balance when there is a balance between the amount of energy you get from your diet and the amount of energy your body uses.

Do you want to lose weight and slim down? Then you have to consume more energy than you take in.

Related postHow to maintain weight loss after a diet: Essential tips backed by science

Do you want to gain weight and fatten up? Then you have to consume more energy and calories than you consume. If you consume the same as you need, your weight will remain stable, and you will not gain weight.

You can estimate the amount of energy you consume using several calculations.

This results in a particular energy requirement, and you can then adjust your nutrition plan and eating pattern accordingly.

Disturbed eating behavior in pursuit of a negative energy balance

Disturbed eating behaviors are common in athletes who participate in an aesthetic sport or a weight class sport, a sport for which a low body weight and fat percentage is needed.

When it comes to disturbed eating behavior, you can think of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. But it covers a much larger area.

Many people fall outside the “eating disorder” category regarding their eating behavior. Still, they can certainly and do exhibit disturbed eating behavior, with all the consequences this entails.

Abnormal eating behaviors that do not fall within the category of eating disorders are generally referred to as “inadequate eating behaviors.”

Inadequate and disrupted eating behavior carries several risks. The health consequences depend on the severity of the disturbed eating behavior.

Consider macro and micronutrient deficiencies during long-term energy restriction. However, an increased risk of anemia, fatigue, injury, and illness is also associated with following a (too) strict diet for a long time.

Remark: If a low fat percentage is pursued using vomiting and laxatives, this obviously produces other severe symptoms and increases the risk of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance.

Female Athlete Triad syndrome in women

The Female Athlete Triad is a syndrome caused by high energy consumption, disturbed eating behaviors, and/or fat percentage reduction.

Exercising intensely and/or eating inadequately can disrupt menstruation. The woman in question gets an irregular menstrual pattern or sometimes even stops having her period altogether.

This is because there is not enough energy available or fat reserves are too low. This can eventually cause osteoporosis.

The explanation for this is as follows:

When the fat percentage and calorie intake are too low, the body may not produce enough estrogen. In addition, intense exercise creates stress that releases certain stress hormones. Think cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline.

And these stress hormones suppress the production of estrogen. This while estrogen is an important hormone that affects the menstrual cycle.

Did you know: Estrogen also plays an essential role in bone regeneration and bone health.

In short, low energy availability and high energy consumption decrease estrogen production in the female body. This can disrupt menstruation and increase the risk of osteoporosis.

But there are other symptoms and complaints. Think fatigue, depression, decreased concentration, inability to stand the cold well, annoying constipation, dry and tight skin, being lightheaded, and struggling with low blood pressure.

Testosterone deficiency for men

Men may also experience hormonal adverse effects from too low a fat percentage. Too low a fat percentage or rapid weight loss harms testosterone production.

Testosterone deficiency, depending on age, can cause various symptoms.

In adult men, low testosterone can lead to decreased libido, infertility, erectile dysfunction, hair loss, reduced muscle mass, and lethargy.

Effect on sports performance

Based on the preceding adverse effects, you might think that athletic performance is also negatively affected by too low a fat percentage.

Yet, especially in the beginning, this is not always the case.

Indeed, when you look at disturbed eating behavior, sometimes we actually see an improvement in athletic performance.

This is probably because the body experiences stress at the beginning of a period of strict dieting. As a result, more cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline are produced. These hormones have a stimulating effect and can thus, for example, repress and delay fatigue.

Also, weight loss at the beginning can give an advantage, for example, to athletes whose performance benefits from a lighter weight.

Beware: These benefits only occur in the early stages. In the long run, athletic performance will only go downhill.

Tips to lower fat percentage responsibly

Not only too low but also too high a fat percentage carries risks.

Therefore, it is wise to look at what is a healthy fat percentage for you personally.

Want to lower your fat percentage? Then don’t go too far into this and do it responsibly.

Here are 3 more interesting tips on how to handle this properly:

  • Determine an ideal weight and fat percentage for yourself. In this, be realistic and stay within the recommended limits. Consult your physician for guidelines and medical advice tailored to your body.
  • Aim for a maximum weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week.
  • Ensure a slight calorie deficit and optimal intake of your nutrients. Both macro and micronutrients (eat plenty of fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and drink plenty of water).
  • Above all, be realistic without putting your body and health at risk. Bodybuilders, actors, and fitness athletes don’t have extremely low fat percentages year-round either. Aim for a fat percentage that is healthy for you and that you feel comfortable with. Be sure to consult a doctor or nutritionist for this!

Low body fat risks: Conclusion

With the associated risks of low body fat as prevalent as those for high fat percentages, it’s well worth the time and sometime expense of expert coaching from a nutritionist or doctor.

After all, cure is much more expensive and troublesome than prevention, and more importantly, isn’t always available if it’s too late.

About Heather Campbell

As a nutritionist, my field of specialization is science-based nutritional advice but more importantly, it is my goal to share capturing and inspiring stories, examples and solutions which can help plus-size individuals overcome their specific difficulties. Read More