Body Fat Percentage

As I’ve mentioned here, my church is in the process of replacing a popular pastor. It’s early days, and a certain amount of uncertainty hangs in the air. Last week, at a committee meeting, a dedicated brother spoke passionately about his perception of the present season: “We have to stop the bleeding.”

The “bleeding” that this man perceived was an apparent decline in church service attendance. Frankly, I’m not sure, in the middle of July, that we can really see a dramatic reduction in numbers, but I’ve never been good at eye-balling crowds. Let’s take his perception as true. Let’s assume that we examined the numbers and discovered that, in the wake of the pastor’s departure, we saw a 20% reduction in average attendance compared to the same time last year. Should that cause alarm?

The Bleeding

Bleeding, I’m told, is a good thing. Last week, I cleverly rammed my left thumb onto the sharp point of some garden clippers I held in my right hand. It hurt, but then it bled. That bleeding let me know that I needed to stop my work and attend to the wound. It also, so I’m told, cleaned out any of the dirt and debris that might have been injected into the wound by the clippers. Bleeding can purify.

But of course bleeding can also kill, so let’s not get too giddy over that bodily process. What I would ask my friend to consider is that “bleeding” might not be the best metaphor for what we’re seeing.

Pruning and Dieting

One of our pastoral leaders used the term “pruning.” That has the advantage of being biblical. In John 15:2, we read of God as the gardener:

He cuts off every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

That would suggest that if people leave, they do so not on their own volition but as God cut them away. Pruning makes sense, but I’d like to suggest another metaphor.

Looking in the mirror this morning, I was reminded of something that has been nagging me for more than a year. I need to lose weight. At the same time, however, I find that I don’t have all of the strength that I had a couple of years back. If I should manage to get myself back into discipline and drop 10 or 50 pounds, I want to ensure that what leaves my body is fat and not muscle. In fact, I’d like not just to eliminate fat-weight but add some muscle-weight.

The Fat in the Church

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

We’re using these metaphors, both the pruning and the weight-loss ones, to refer to the entire body of the church, but we could also apply them to the individual within the church. Just as I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve allowed my physical fitness to get away from me, I can–in fact I should–look at myself as a spiritual creature and recognize that I’m not as fit as I should be.

What if every member of my church, starting with me, were to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror? What if they were to truly evaluate their dedication to Christ and to His body? What if we were to all ask ourselves some hard questions, rather than saying, “What the church ought to do is . . .” They might ask:

  • Should I be using my gifts in service more than I am?
  • Should I be spending more time in God’s Word?
  • Do I have a proper burden for the unsaved people around me?
  • Am I giving an appropriate amount of my money to build God’s kingdom?
  • What’s the state of my prayer life?
  • Am I wasting time, money, or energy on the vapors of this world that will be gone in a few years?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my church is a tool for God’s projects?

The list could continue. If 20% of our people would take seriously such a self-evaluation, if only one in five were to honestly ask and try to respond to these questions, then we would be stronger and more fit even if we did lose 20% of our total number.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, far too many of us respond to our spiritual obesity in the same way that we respond to our physical obesity. We think good thoughts, generate good intentions, and then eat a big bowl of ice cream on the couch.

Just as it was important for me to stop my bleeding last week, it is vital that truly committed Christians take seriously their own spiritual fitness even as they aim to be part of the solution for the whole church body.

That process, my friends, will begin with me. How about you?

Dispatches from the Diet Lab

Belly FatHow would you like to spend your career studying diets and why they do or don’t work? That’s what Dr. Traci Mann does, and now she’s written a book about the experience.

Secrets from the Eating Lab shares many of Mann’s findings–which is that, by and large, diets don’t work–and then provides some advice on what to do instead of dieting. A reviewer from NPR shares these observations on Mann’s work.

Diets don’t work for a variety of reasons, from biology to psychology. Mann points the finger, first and foremost, at human biology. “Genes,” she writes, “play an indisputable role in regulating an individual’s weight: Most of us have a genetically set weight range. When we try to live above or below that range, our body struggles mightily to adapt.”

That sounds great, but I have a couple of quibbles with Mann’s conclusions. First of all, given the recent increase in obesity in the United States, is Dr. Mann suggesting that we have witnessed a monumental shift in human genetics? Second, just how wide is that range that she mentions? Is it a 5-pound range or a 50-pound range? That would seem to make a huge difference.

Beyond that, Mann goes to the brain, which (at least according to the reviewer) apparently is not a biological organ.

Second to biology, Mann blames a combination of neuroscience and psychology. Our brains are hardwired to want food for survival, she explains, so restricting calories creates a psychological stress response, which facilitates weight gain, not loss. Also, she adds: “Studies show that willpower, the thing we all blame ourselves for not having enough of, is in many ways a mythical quality and certainly not something that can be relied upon for weight loss.”

Again, I have to ask for some quantification. How much of a reduction in calories do we need before that “psychological stress response” kicks in? And this idea that willpower is a myth would seem to suggest that everybody ought to weigh 400 pounds.

Of course the problem with studying diets lies in defining just what qualifies as a diet. When Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds food for 30 days, that was a diet. So was what I ate when I weighed 55 pounds more than today. At what point does a change of eating habits qualify as a “diet”?

What this book seems to ignore is the spiritual aspect of dieting. When we see ourselves as belonging to ourselves, then we’re pretty much reduced to some sort of inwardly based motivation. When we see ourselves belonging to the creator of the universe, then there’s help and hope for a healthier future.

The Fat Fixation Fallacy (Body Fat Percentage)

ScaleMy daughter told me a tale, told second hand, from her gym. According to this account, a young woman went to the gym with her (idiot) boyfriend. At the gym–a much swankier place than mine, apparently–she had her body fat percentage tested. She came out at 8% body fat. When this was announced, the boyfriend supposedly said, “You have a lot of work to do.”

That’s how eating disorders and neuroses get started, I think. As we continue to consider methods for answering the question, “How much should I weigh?” we’ll take up body fat percentage next.

Body fat percentage is a fairly straightforward metric for your weight, involving a good deal less arithmetic than BMI. How heavy should you be? Body fat percentage can give you a pretty good idea.

How do you calculate it. It’s simple: First, weigh yourself. Let’s say you weigh 150 pounds. Then take all of your fat out and weigh it. We’ll say you have 45 pounds of fat. Divide the fat pounds by the total weight (45/150) and you get 30% body fat. Now be sure to put that fat back in. Leaving it out is cheating!

Obviously there’s a problem there. We can weigh ourselves easily enough, but weighing our fat is a bit tougher. The more accurate methods for doing that (at least on a live body) are also the more difficult or expensive. For example, you could use a body fat caliper for less than $10, but its results will not be nearly as accurate as underwater weighing or biometric impedance measurements. But can you manage to do either of those methods on your own? No.

Let’s assume that you can accurately measure your body fat percentage. Where should it be? The number for men should be considerably lower than that for women. Female athletes will typically have 14-20% body fat while male athletes will be in the 6-13% range. That suggests that the bonehead boyfriend at my daughter’s gym didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. A woman with 8% body fat is probably in an unhealthy weight range.

So how heavy should you be using body fat percentage as a guide? Let’s assume that want to have an athlete’s build. You could determine a weight at which your body fat would come in at, say, 16% for a woman or 10% for a man. For example, maybe a man discovers that 162 pounds yields that magical 10% figure. But what’s magical about 10% for a man or 16% for a woman. The “athlete” percentages might cover a weight range of 8 to 15 pounds for an average woman or man. That’s something like 98 to 106 pounds for an athletic woman or 160 to 175 for an athletic man. You can see that we’re not getting a great deal of certainty with this measurement.

Body fat percentage is a useful tool and certainly far superior tool to BMI, but it does not give us that magical number of “How much should I weigh?” At the same time it can lead us into making an idol out of the number, which we can already do on the bathroom scale.

The Right Weight

Scale“Where the Bible is silent, we are silent” has long been a slogan among a certain slice of the Evangelical world. While my own tradition does not come from that slice, I admire the idea behind such silence. A church should not, I think, take adamant stands on matters on which the Bible does not speak. For example, what does the Bible say about the use of tobacco? Nothing! Since tobacco is a New World plant, it would have made very little sense for the Biblical writers to share something that would not come onto the scene for another 1,300 years. A church can get by perfectly well without expressing a position on tobacco.

On the other hand, an individual cannot live life with a silent position on many matters on which the Bible is silent. For example, if I am pulled toward smoking–which, happily, I’m not–then I have to either determine that it is acceptable or reject it. To do that without trying to discern God’s will would be foolish.

What does the Bible say about weight? How much body fat should I carry around with me according to Paul? Search all you want, but you’ll find no clear answer to that. The Bible neither praises nor condemns fat people or thin people. It does have a fair amount to say about gluttony, but that’s not precisely the same thing. I can be a glutton today and still keep a lean body if I watch my eating the rest of the week.

I say this as I have been watching the scale tick downward over the last several weeks. A year ago, I held my weight between 180 and 185 for about eight months. Then I bounced up to around 195 in the wake of some very stressful times. For the past eight months, I’ve been between 188 and 196. When I last weighed in, I tipped the scale at 190.6. Hopefully, a few more steady weeks will have me back in the 185 range.

But I ask myself, how much of my desire to see a certain number on the scale is vanity and how much is good stewardship. Since the Bible is silent on this matter of weight, where do I turn for guidance? I’d like to look at some possibilities in upcoming posts.

Do I Really Want to Be Shredded?

Muscle BoyI recently ran across an article in Men’s Fitness that promised to show me ways to “Stay Shredded All Season Long.” While the article, which was cobbled together as answers to single questions asked of five different fitness experts–leftovers from five different interviews perhaps?–seemed to have some useful advice, I had to question the overall premise. Do I really want to be “shredded”?

One of the questions asks for the best exercises for training the abs. The expert says, in part:

The best way to keep your abs conditioned all year round is to follow a healthy diet with a close eye on slightly restricting your starchy carb intake like breads, pastas, etc.

Do you notice a problem there? This guy doesn’t mention any exercises here. To be fair, he goes on to talk about exercises, but the fact that he starts out talking about starchy food suggests that he’s more interested in appearance than in actual strength. Does a layer of belly fat really have anything to do with the strength of your abdominal muscles? Can’t you have incredible strong abs while maintaining a few extra pounds of flab around the middle? And is that really a great burden to fitness.

The question here is what we supposed to be fit for. Is fitness a purely cosmetic thing? Does the fit person need to look like a Greek statue? Or is fitness found in the ability to do the things that we want to do?

Frankly, I don’t need to be shredded.