Going for the Gaunt: How Low Can an Athlete’s Body Fat Go?
Having won six medals in his career, Seattle-based speed skater Apolo Ohno stands to make U.S. Winter Olympic history if he wins another one in upcoming short-track competition—the 1,000-meter race this weekend or the 5,000-meter relay on February 26. In various reports, Ohno has said that he’s in the best physical shape of his life, weighing five kilograms less than he did for the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, and nine kilograms less than he did for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Ohno is now 65 kilograms of almost pure muscle: only 2.8 percent of his body consists of fat.
Elite athletes, of course, are expected to be slimmer than the rest of us. The average amount of body fat in the U.S. is 22 percent for men and 32 percent for women, although most experts believe a healthier body-fat content is 15 percent for men and 22 percent for women, according to The Ultimate Fit or Fat, a book by nutritionist Covert Bailey. Ohno’s fat level, though, is down there even for an athlete.
So how low is too low? After all, fat is crucial for normal physiology—it helps support the skin and keep it lubricated, cushions feet, sheaths neurons, stores vitamins, and is a building block of hormones.
Marina Mourtzakis, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who specializes in nutrition, exercise and metabolism, gives scientificamerican.com the skinny on athletes’ fat.