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Race, Body Fat, and Skin Folds

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Racial differences in body fat are clear to the naked eye: black women are more likely to carry more body fat than white women; Mexican American women are more likely to carry more body fat than white women, too. Different races/ethnies/genders of these races/ethnies have different formulas to assess body fat through the use of skin-folds. The sites to grasp the skin is different based on gender and race.

Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference is overestimated in blacks, which means that they need different formulas to assess their BMI and adiposity/lean mass. Race-specific formulas/methods are needed to assess body fat and, along with it, disease risk, since blacks are more likely to be obese (black women, at least, it’s different with black American men with more African ancestry, see below). The fact of the matter is, when matched on a slew of variables, blacks had lower total and abdominal fat mass than whites.

This is even noted in Asian, black and white prepubertal children. He et al (2002) show that sex differences in body fat distribution are present in children who have yet to reach puberty and the differences in body fat in Asians is different than that from blacks and whites which also varies by sex. Asian girls had greater gynoid fat by DXA scan only, with girls having greater gynoid fat than boys. Asian girls had lower adjusted extremity fat and gynoid fat compared to white and black girls. Though, Asian boys had a lower adjusted extremity by fat as shown by DXA (a gold standard in body fat measurement) when compared to whites, but greater gynoid fat than whites and blacks.

Vickery, Cureton, and Collins, (1988)Wagner and Heyward (2000), and Robson, Bazin, and Soderstrom (1971) show that there are considerable body composition differences between blacks and whites. These differences in body composition come down to diet, of course, but there is also a genetic/physiologic component there as well. Combining the known fact that skin-fold testing is not conducive to a good estimate, black American men with more African ancestry are less likely to be obese.

Vickery, Cureton, and Collins (1988) argue that, if accurate estimates of body fat percentages are to be obtained, race-specific formulas need to be developed and used as independent variables to assess racial differences in body fat percentage. Differences in muscularity don’t seem to account for these skinfold differences, nor does greater mesomorphy. One possible explanation for differences in skinfold thickness is that blacks may store most of their body fat subcutaneously. (See Wagner and Heyward, 2000 for a review on fat patterning and body composition in blacks and whites.)

The often-used Durnin-Womersley formula which is used to predict body fat just from skin folds. However, “The 1974 DW equations did not predict %BF(DXA) uniformly in all races or ethnicities” (Davidson et al, 2011). Truesdale et al (2016) even show that numerous formulas used to estimate percent body fat are flawed, even some formulas used on different races. Most of the equations tested showed starkly different conclusions. But, this is based on NHANES data and the only data they provide regarding skin-folds is the tricep and subscapular skinfold so there may still be more problems with all of the equations used to assess body fat percentage between races. (Also see Cooper, 2010.)

Klimentidis et al (2016) show that black men—but not black women—seem to be protected against obesity and central adiposity (fat gain around the midsection) and that race negatively correlated with adiposity. The combo of male gender and West African ancestry predicted low levels of adiposity compared to black Americans with less African ancestry. Furthermore, since black men and women have—theoretically—the same SES, then cultural/social factors would not play as large a role as genetic factors in explaining the differences in adiposity between black men and black women. Black men with more African ancestry had a lower WHR and less central adiposity than black men with less African ancestry. If we assume that they had similar levels of SES and lived in similar neighborhoods, there is only one reason why this would be the case.

Klimentidis et al (2016) write:

One interpretation is that AAs are exposed to environmental and/or cultural factors that predispose them to greater obesity than EAs. Possibly, some of the genes that are inherited as part of their West-African ancestry are protective against obesity, thereby “canceling out” the obesifying effects of environment/culture, but only in men. Another interpretation is that genetic protection is afforded to all individuals of African descent, but this protection is overwhelmed by cultural and/or other factors in women.

Black men do, as is popularly believed, prefer bigger women over smaller women. For example, Freedman et al (2004) showed that black American men were more likely to prefer bigger women. Black American men “are more willing to idealize a woman
of a heavier body size, with more curves, than do their White American counterparts” (Freedman et al, 2004: 197). It is then hypothesized that black American men find these figures attractive (figures with “more curves” (Freedman et al, 2004: 197)) to protect against eating pathologies, such as anorexia and bulimia. So, it has been established that black men have thinner skin folds than whites which leads to skewed lean mass/body fat readings and black men with more African ancestry are less likely to be obese. These average differences between races, of course, contribute to differing disease acquisition.

I have covered differences in body fat in a few Asian ethnies and have come to the obvious conclusion: Asians, at the same height, weight etc as whites and blacks, will have more adipose tissue on their bodies. They, too, like blacks and whites, have different areas that need to be assessed for skin folds to estimate body fat.

Henriques (2016: 29) has a table on the equations for calculating estimated body density from skin fold measures from various populations. Of interest are the ones on blacks or ‘Hispanics‘, blacks or athletes and blacks and whites. (The table is provided from NSCA, 2008 so the references are not in the back of the text.)

For black and ‘Hispanic’ women aged 18-55 years, the sites to use for skin-folds are the chest, abdomen, triceps, subscapular, suprailiac, midaxillary, and the thigh. For blacks or athletes aged 18-61 years, the sites to use are the same as before (but a different equation is used for body fat estimation). For white women or anorexic women aged 18-55, the sites used are just triceps, suprailiac and the thigh. For black and white boys aged 6-17, only the triceps and the calf is used. It is the same for black and white girls, but, again, a different formula is used to assess body fat (Henriques, 2016: 29).

Morrison et al (2012) showed that white girls had a higher percent body fat when compared to black girls at ages 9-12 but every age after, black girls had higher percent body fat (which is related to earlier menarche in black girls since they have higher levels of body fat which means earlier puberty; Kaplowitz, 2008). Black girls, though, had higher levels of fat in their subscapular skin folds than white girls at all ages.

So, it seems, there are population-/race-specific formulas that need to be created to better assess body fat percentage in different races/ethnies and not assume that one formula/way of assessing body fat should be used for all racial/ethnic groups. According to the literature (some reviewed here and in Wagner and Heyward, 2000), these types of formulas are sorely needed to better assess health markers in certain populations. These differences in body fat percentage and distribution then have real health consequences for the races/ethnies in question.

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