Most of the empirical investigations into the association between body mass index (BMI) and mortality suggest that the lowest-mortality BMI is approximately on the border between the normal and overweight ranges. Or, as Peter put it (1): “Getting fat is good.”
As much as one may be tempted to explain this based only on the relative contribution of lean body mass to total weight, the evidence suggests that both body fat and lean body mass contribute to this phenomenon. In fact, the evidence suggests that carrying some extra body fat may be healthy for many.
Yet, the scientific evidence strongly suggests that body fat accumulation beyond a certain point is unhealthy. There seems to be a sweet spot of body fat percentage, and that sweet spot may vary a lot across different individuals.
One interesting aspect of most empirical investigations of the association between BMI and mortality is that the participants live in urban or semi-urban societies. When you look at hunter-gatherer societies, the picture seems to be a bit different. The graph below shows the distribution of BMIs among males in Kitava and Sweden, from a study by Lindeberg and colleagues (2).
In Sweden, a lowest mortality BMI of 26 would correspond to a point on the x axis that would rise up approximately to the middle of the distribution of data points from Sweden in the graph. It is reasonable to assume that this would also happen in Kitava, in which case the lowest mortality BMI would be around 20.
One of the key differences between urbanites and hunter-gatherers is the greater energy expenditure among the latter; hunter-gatherers generally move more. This provides a clue as to why some extra body fat may be healthy among urbanites. Hunter-gatherers spend more energy, so they have to consume more “natural” food, and thus more nutrients, to maintain their lean body mass.
A person’s energy expenditure is strongly dependent on a few variables, including body weight and physical activity. Let us assume that a hunter-gatherer, due to a reasonably high level of physical activity, maintains a BMI of 20 while consuming 3,000 kilocalories (a.k.a. calories) per day. An urbanite with the same height, but a lower level of physical activity, may need a higher body weight, and thus a higher BMI, to consume 3,000 calories per day at maintenance.
And why would someone want to consume 3,000 calories per day? Why not 1,500? The reason is nutrient intake, particularly micronutrient intake – intake of vitamins and minerals that are used by the body in various processes. Unfortunately it seems that micronutrient supplementation (e.g., a multivitamin pill) is largely ineffective except in cases of pathological deficiency.
Urbanites may need to carry a bit of extra body fat to be able to have an appropriate intake of micronutrients to maintain their lean body structures in a healthy state. Obviously the type of food eaten matters a lot. A high nutrient-to-calorie ratio is generally desirable. However, we cannot forget that we also need to eat fat, in part because without it we cannot properly absorb the all-important fat-soluble vitamins. And dietary fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient of all.
Why not putting on extra muscle instead of carrying the extra fat? For one, that is not easy when you are a sedentary urbanite. Particularly after a certain age, if you try too hard you end up getting injured. But there is another interesting angle to consider. Humans, like many other animals, have genetic “protections” against high muscularity, such as the protein myostatin. Myostatin is produced mostly in muscle cells; it acts on muscle, by inhibiting its growth.
Say what? Why would evolution favor something like myostatin? Big, muscular humans could be at the top of the food chain by physical strength alone; they could kill a lion with their bare hands. Well, it is possible. (Many men like to think of themselves as warriors, probably because most of them are not.) But evolution favors what works best given the ecological niches available. In our case, it favored bigger and more plastic brains to occupy what Steve Pinker called a “cognitive niche”.
Even though fat mass is not inert, secreting a number of hormones into the bloodstream, the micronutrient “need” of fat mass is likely much lower than the micronutrient need of non-fat mass. That is, a kilogram of lean mass likely puts a higher demand on micronutrients than a kilogram of fat mass. This should be particularly the case for organs, such as the liver, but also applies to muscle tissue.
While gaining muscle mass through moderate exercise is extremely healthy, bulking up beyond one’s natural limitations may actually backfire. It could increase the demand for micronutrients above what a person can actually consume and absorb through a healthy nutritious diet. Some extra fat mass allows for a higher level of micronutrient intake at weight maintenance, with a lower demand for micronutrients than the same amount of extra lean mass.
Some people are naturally more muscular. Their frame and underlying organ-based capabilities probably support that. It is often visibly noticeable when they go beyond their organ-based capabilities. A common trait among many professional bodybuilders, who usually go beyond the genetic gifts that they naturally have, is a swelling of internal organs.
What complicates this discussion is that all of this seems to vary from individual to individual. People have to find their sweet spots, and doing that may not be the simplest of tasks. For example, even measuring body fat percentage with some precision is difficult and costly. Also, certain types of fat are less desirable than others – visceral versus subcutaneous body fat. It is not easy differentiating one from the other (3).
How do you find your sweet spot in terms of body fat percentage? One of the most promising approaches is to find the point at which your waist-to-weight ratio is minimized (4).