Stress and Low Body Fat Levels

A year ago I posted How I Regained the Weight I Lost. There I speculated on what was my ideal weight.

If I were to ask my body what it believes my ideal weight is, I’d get different answers. My shoulders, chest and legs, would say I look most muscular at 215. My abs might say 185. My face looks younger at 200 than 185.

This is what I have believed for a few years now. The part I want to focus on is the fact my face looked younger at a higher weight. I believe I may have drawn a false conclusion.

When I was at my lowest weight, my face looked haggard. Years of reading nutrition blogs and their comments made me aware that dieting to low body levels can make one look rundown. And it appears to be more common with men over 30 that primarily use a lower carb diet. These are not my observations, but the observations that I’ve stumbled across several times.

What causes someone to look haggard at low body fat levels? When I first asked that question, I guessed that age was the primary reason. My thinking was that a 25 year old can still have amazing vibrant skin and be ripped, but at a certain age our faces need our body to carry more weight to look younger. But there is more to the story.

I’m actually surprised that it took me this long to connect the dots, but it wasn’t until Precision Nutrition posted their infographic on the article The cost of getting lean: Is it really worth the trade-off? before I realized my nutritional narrative was false. Go look at that graphic now. The part that caught my eye was in the Do More Do Less section. Notice the difference in recommendations.

Body Fat Percentage:

  • Men 15-20%, Women 25-30%: (no sleep or stress management requirements)
  • Men 13-15%, Women 23-25%: Sleep 7+ hours a night, practice some stress management
  • Men 10-12%, Women 20-22%: Sleep 7-8+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men 6-9%, Women 16-19%: Sleep 8-9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men <6%, Women <16%: Sleep 9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes

According to the chart, sleep and stress management requirements increase as someone goes from normal lean to cut. The implication here is that the very act of being lean is stressful. I had to ask for clarification.


And then everything made sense. It wasn’t the low body fat levels that made me look haggard, it was how I achieved them. How did I get very lean? From The Grand Experiment Revisited:

Getting ripped is hard, but the real challenge would be to do it in a way that supports metabolism. What I learned is something I’ve talked about on other posts in the past few years and that is don’t stack stressors. Fasting, lifting, eat super clean, poor sleep and running on high levels of caffeine are all stressors. I did all those and then when that wasn’t enough, I started swimming in the cold Puget Sound.

I looked haggard because as I got leaner, my stress levels went up. I wasn’t reducing stress, I was stacking it. My sleep needs were increasing and I was frequently waking up in the middle of the night with headaches. There is a lesson here. Unless one can address stress and commit to enough sleep, getting very lean is going to be difficult or come at a cost or both.


Sleep by me


Add yours

  1. Glenn Whitney

    Mar 4, 2015 — 10:59 am

    It might be helpful to supplement with collagen to improve skin tone and reduce the propensity to look haggard.

  2. @Glenn – Good idea. Right now I make my own beef stock and supplement with gylcine.

  3. MAS, every time you said you were skinny, I thought you had very low body fat levels naturally. For instance, I can maintain my bf around 9-10% without even caring about it. There’s no way my weight would fluctuate as much as ~15 lbs that easily.

    What’s stressful to me is eating a ton of food to pack on mass (believe it or not).

  4. @Arthur – My natural BF without trying or thinking is closer to 15-17%. That is a guess. 15 pounds is not going to be easy, but at my height 6 ‘2.5, it isn’t too much.

    If I had trouble gaining from low body levels, ice cream and/or dairy kefir would be my staples. If dairy was an issue, a can of coconut milk is close to 1,000 calories. Liquid calories would be my friend.

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