Optimal Level of Body Fat?

Posted: 24th December 2010 by tyler in body fat, fat loss, leanness
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This question posted on PaleoHacks forum last week:

How lean can you get with strict paleo?

Let’s hear some body fat percentages! Just how lean is everyone getting on strict paleo?

It seems like we see tons of success stories.. people dropping a ton of weight in going from obese to fit, but I haven’t seen too many completely shredded people who are strict paleo.

I’ve actually gone up from around 8% to 9.5-10% in the year since I went strict (was working on low fat SAD with a calorie deficit with way too much activity and too little sleep before, so I am unquestionably healthier now).

Jamie Eason…
This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, here are my current thoughts on this topic.
The evidence does show that an evolutionary or paleo diet is the healthiest diet possible, but when I think about leanness that leads to another question…
Is being ultra lean the healthiest state for your body?
Despite the instinctive appeal I (and many others) have for being in an extremely lean state, I doubt that this is the absolute healthiest state for the body to be in. Having a small amount of available body fat for hormone production, cell membranes, extended fasts, and other homeostatic functions is probably a good thing. This might explain your slight increase in body fat with a corresponding increase in wellbeing/health. 
However, it is certainly possible to get extremely lean by manipulating macronutrient ratios, exercise modalities, and maybe some intermittent fasting. How lean will depend on your individual genetics and desire. Eating slightly under maintenance calories while maintaining your muscles mass while result in fat loss, but I don’t know if this is the optimal state for your body.
GSP – lean mean machine
This being said, I vary between 7-10% body fat, and many of my fellow athletes I have converted to an evolutionary diet are in a similar range.
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  1. Anonymous says:

    hey i just watched an interesting video on Dr. Max Gersen called the beautiful truth. i was wondering if you have heard of him and if so your thoughts on his therapy?

  2. Tyler says:

    HiI can't say I've heard of Dr. Gerson before now. This makes it difficult to truly assess his therapy, but here are some of my thoughts after a little research.I looked him up on wikipedia- not a perfect source but tends to have pretty balanced information. After looking at his methods, my opinion is that some of his therapy may have been beneficial, but much of it was not effective and was probably harmful. First off, a raw and plant based diet sets the stage for multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies and an overload of carbohydrates. Cancer cells use sugar to grow and replicate, and a diet that is ultra low in fat and protein will by nature have a much higher glucose content. He recommends fresh juices every hour. Fruits are mostly fructose which appears to be the most preferred food for cancer cells. So far not so good. He also encouraged restriction of water- this makes no sense at all. Gerson also used frequent enemas- to the best of my knowledge this is unpleasant and provides no beneficial aspects. The two good things about it are 1, the calf liver, and 2, that all processed foods are replaced with whole foods. Also a low protein diet may stimulate autophagy, the breakdown of older cells (generally a good thing).All the clinical trials and retrospective studies failed to show the improvement that was seen in the anecdotal results. Overall I would never recommend this diet to anyone that I cared about, I believe it would be severely counterproductive.

  3. Robin says:

    Interesting thoughts on body fat percentages. I wish I'd bookmarked the article, but I read one last year that was a fairly large study that showed that people with very low body fat levels had increased mortality and morbidity, similar to people with elevated body fat levels. It seems that the ideal is in the lean, but not-too-lean camp. Especially if you get hit with an illness or accident, having a little bit of body fat to see you through can be a good thing. Myself, I hover around 18%, though can get down to as low as 15 – 16 % when I was really being competitive. I've found that my body does NOT want to stay that lean and I have to fight it to get there, a sure sign that it's probably not all that healthy.

  4. Tyler says:

    Hi Robin, thanks for the comments. Thing's I have read confirm what you remember from that article. Having some body fat is certainly desirable from a survival standpoint. However, to play the devil's advocate I have to ask if the researchers differentiated between people who were lean from starvation/crash dieting or lean from smart food choices, timing, and exercise? It would be really interesting to see the results compared between these two groups, I'm sure this would be a difficult study to do though. Working in our Human Perfomance Lab doing body comp's, I have to admit that it is rare to see females with less than 18% body fat, even among athletes. I understand exactly what you mean when you say your body does not want to stay much leaner than that. After a year of following a consistently paleo/HG diet I tend to naturally gravitate towards 9-10% body fat. I find it difficult to stay below that for very long although readings of 7% during track season are not uncommon.

  5. Buck Wheeler says:

    Regarding body comp, I truly believe that optimal body comp=optimal performance. I run a blog, evotacfit.blogspot.com, which is a similar paleo/performance type site and through my experience the best ideal body fat for any person is where they perform the best.Im a big believer in Paleo nutrition and think folks often get too caught up in "weight loss" "diets" and ideal body comp/fat. I have trained hundreds of people for performance based sports and careers and have found that when they make performance the goal, they will usually find their ideal body comp, which is generally leaner then where they started, are healthier (improved blood work) and feel better.I think the only time someone should try to lean out is if they have to make weight for an event or do a photo shoot…or if they just wanna see how lean they get.I have been involved in competitive sports and have been teaching close quarter tactics and consider myself in good shape. I usually hovered around 11%…after going paleo about a year ago (and almost 40)…my bodyfat now stays at about 8%, and I eat alot more protein and fat than I used to, plus I feel better and my bloodwork continues to improve…plus I continue to make improvements in performance..pretty cool.Great site by the way, keep up the good work!

  6. Marco B says:

    Great post Tyler. I have been experimenting with the Paleo diet for 3 months now. I have also noticed an increase in my body fat. However, I was coming off a strict lean down following a diet similar to a Precision Nutrition Prescription. Pre and post workout sugars with specific meal timing and calorie counting. I have practically doubled my caloric load eating Paleo and feel much better. Although my body fat has increased so has my muscular size. The biggest thing has been not counting cals. It is easy for me to adapt it to my lifestyle but when I do feel the need to lean down under 9%, I will switch back to a more Precision Nutrition style diet.I used Precision Nutrition as an example. I feel Dr. John Berardi and his team are top notch for performance nutrition. Even when following a lean down diet I still remain gluten free. I do not move too far away from a Paleo Diet.

  7. Tyler says:

    Hey Marco, I think you're right, the PN crowd does an excellent job with meal timing and pre/post workout nutrition. If you read Berardi's latest blog, he basically says that everyone should be doing a pretty close version of paleo, and that the only better thing will be when we can look at somebody's individual genetics to see what is optimal for them. That being said, I've been experimenting with some really cool new stuff on some of our athletes- timing meals based on hormonal status of the body due to natural variations in GH, testosterone, insulin sensitivity, and more artificial variations like those around the workout. Within the paleo framework, this is pretty ridiculously effective when going for a specific goal. I went from 172-196 pounds in the last 12 weeks while maintaining my leanness using some individualized programming based on this stuff

  8. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tyler, Looking forward to the post which details the 24lbs gain :-)