What method can a physician use to evaluate the status of a patient’s body composition?

A. Blood glucose level.

B. Body fat percentage.

C. Target heart rate zone.

D. Body diameter measurement.

The correct answer is B. Body fat percentage.

Diagram showing fat (adipose) tissue as seen through a microscope. By OpenStax College [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A doctor may be interested in determining what a patient’s body composition is like. This can be important in terms of establishing overall health and likelihood of developing certain diseases in the future. The most important method for establishing the body composition is for the doctor to assess the body fat percentage.

The percentage of fat relative to other components of the body has large health implications and in fact, many diseases have been linked to excess body fat. In addition, it is also the distribution of the adipose that seems to be important in what disorders you may develop.

Clearly, other measures such as your blood glucose level, heart rate, and blood pressure are also important for a doctor to measure, but these do not indicate your body composition.

The composition of your body, in terms of amount and distribution of body fat, can and does influence glucose control and your cardiovascular system.

Body fat

Fat (lipid) tissue is also known as adipose and consists of cells known as adipocytes. These cells essentially store fat in the form of droplets. The lipids can be broken down by enzymes into glycerols and fatty acids. These can then be used to provide energy to the body when needed.

Most people may not realize that fat is an important part of our bodies, but it is crucial to have since it surrounds and provides support and protection to our internal organs. This is important especially if you are in an accident since the fat cushions the impact you may experience.

Fats also have precursor molecules that are needed to form many hormones, such as the steroids, and other substances in the body. Leptin is one of the hormones formed by adipose tissue, which is important in controlling the metabolism of the body.

The significance of fat can also be seen in the brain, where nerve cells are surrounded by a fatty sheath known as myelin. We rely on this myelin to speed up the transmission of impulses in the brain. In fact, it is a lack of this fatty substance that is seen in diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Fatty acids are also an important source of energy which your body can use during times of starvation. This is one of the best forms of stored energy that the human body has, and it can help to some extent in keeping the body warm.

The layer of adipose that lies under our skin also serves a function as a good protective barrier between the external environment and our internal organs. Having too little or too much body fat is dangerous and will compromise your health.

Excess body fat

Body fat percentage and distribution has been linked to the development of certain diseases in people. Too much fat and particularly too much that is deposited in the upper part of the body and around the internal organs is harmful.

In fact, this has been found to be strongly associated with elevated levels of blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar (glucose) levels. High adipose levels have also been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer in women.

Obesity has been linked not only to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes but also an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If your physician determines that you have excess fat then it is a good idea to consider a change in diet and increase your level of activity.

Too little body fat

It may be hard to imagine that a person can have too little body fat since most of the time we hear about obesity and its associated problems.

However, too little adipose can also cause problems.  Many athletes have low body fat percentages; however, if the amount of fatty tissue is too low then hormonal issues may arise.

Fertility is linked to reproductive hormones which may drop to very low levels if not enough fat is present. Infertility can occur when there is too little estrogen and the amount of this hormone is linked to adipose content.

It is also important to remember that fat is a good source of energy in times of starvation and protects the organs and even bones, of the body. In fact, research has shown that older woman, who are too thin are more likely to suffer a bone fracture from a fall than women who are somewhat fatter.

How body fat is measured

There are a couple of ways that body fat can be measured. A skinfold test can be done with a pair of special calipers.

The skin is pulled away from the body and the thickness of the adipose measured at various places on the body to give an estimate of fat percentage. However, a more accurate measurement is achieved using a bioelectrical impedance machine.

The way this machine works is that you stand on a platform that is really a monitor and a current is passed through your body.

The machine measures how much your body resists or opposes the current. Hydrostatic weighing and MRI machines can also be used for measuring body fat composition in a person.

BMI

Many countries use a body mass index (BMI) chart to estimate if a person is underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese. This measure uses a formula that is based on your height and weight.

However, research has shown that this is not a completely accurate measure of the amount of adipose. Thus more accurate methods such as the bioelectrical impedance measure should be used as well.

The BMI does give some indication of where a person may fall in terms of weight compared with other individuals. It is important to recognize that a person’s weight is also determined by water and muscle tissue. In fact, there is no way to determine the extent to which water and muscle are contributing to your weight by using a BMI chart.

References

  1. RE Frisch (1987). Body fat, menarche, fitness and fertility.  Human Reproduction.
  2. KE Ensrud, RC Lipschutz, JA Cauley, et al. (1997).  Body size and hip fracture risk in older women: a prospective study. The American Journal of Medicine.
  3. MD Jensen (2008). Role of body fat distribution and the metabolic complications of obesity. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
  4. Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2018). Adipose tissue. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica.
  5. WM Chumlea, SS Guo (1994). Bioelectrical impedance and body composition: present status and future directions. Nutrition reviews.

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