Body Fat Percentage Guide: How To Calculate – Forbes Health – Forbes
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Body fat is an important factor in overall wellness, and too much can be problematic. In fact, high levels of body fat, or obesity, raises your risk of developing many of the common chronic health conditions linked to premature, preventable death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But having too little body fat can cause health issues, too, as it’s necessary for the regulation of glucose, cholesterol, energy storage and release, and reproductive hormone metabolism. Without enough body fat, these functions can be compromised.
Here’s everything you need to know about body fat percentage, including ideal ranges for optimal health, how to calculate and measure it, how it compares to body mass index (BMI) as an indicator of overall wellness and more.
Though many of us gauge the state of our health based on our body weight, it’s not the best method, says Sharon Zarabi, a registered dietician and program director at Northwell Health’s Katz Institute of Women’s Health in New York. When you’re trying to determine your risk of disease, you need to make sure you have a healthy body fat percentage, she says, which is the percent of total body weight that is composed of body fat in proportion to lean mass, organs, tissues and water.
There are multiple ways body fat percentage can be measured, ranging from the use of simple skin calipers to more advanced technology like dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA scans.
Several methods can be used to calculate body fat percentage, though some are more accurate than others.
The most accurate ways to measure body fat, such as hydrostatic weighing, using a Bod Pod and/or CT/MRI scans, are expensive and relatively more difficult to come by than other methods. However, calipers and bioelectrical impedance scales come with a risk of inaccuracy. Of the above-mentioned methods, DEXA may be the most accurate as well as the most widely available way to measure body fat, depending on where you live. If you or your doctor have concerns regarding your body fat percentage, using the most accurate method available is ideal.
Some research suggests that combining a person’s BMI with their waist circumference (WC) may be a fairly accurate way to estimate body fat. For example, a 2016 systematic review of 27 studies in Public Health examined methods of measuring body fat in 7 to 10 year olds, finding that using BMI and WC to estimate body fat was acceptable when more advanced tools, such as DEXA scans, were unavailable. However, other studies suggest that the accuracy of this measurement may vary based on age, sex and race or ethnicity.
Body fat percentage also reflects how physically active and fit you are, says Zarabi. For instance, if you’re a professional athlete, you likely exercise more often and more rigorously, so your body fat percentage is going to be lower than average. It can safely go as low as 10% for women and 3% for men, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). With that said, normal body fat percentage ranges that are generally considered healthy for both men and women are provided in the chart below.
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|Healthy Body Fat Percentage for Men and Women|
|Age||Body Fat Percentage for Men||Body Fat Percentage for Women|
|Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition|
Women tend to have higher body fat percentages than men due to the demands of childbirth and other hormonal factors, adds Atkinson.
Since many standards regarding healthy weights in the U.S. are determined based on BMI indexes rather than body fat percentages, it’s difficult to pinpoint an average body fat percentage, and those averages depend on age, sex and other factors. In the past, women have been found to have higher body fat percentages than men, however updated research is needed. Overall, body fat percentage is highly individualized and the appropriate number for your body should be determined by you and your health care provider
Body fat percentage is an indicator of physical fitness, and keeping it in a healthy range is very important, says Adam Atkinson, a certified personal trainer and founder of See You Later Leaner, a fitness coaching service in Columbus, Ohio. “The higher somebody’s body fat percentage, the more likely they are to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems like sleep apnea and even some cancers,” he says. “You can also get high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease.”
There are two types of body fat, explains Zarabi. “There’s subcutaneous fat, which is the extra skin we can pinch on the sides of our hips (the “muffin top”), and visceral fat, which is found deeper in the body and accumulates around the organs,” she says. Visceral fat is more metabolically active, meaning it produces hormones that affect health, impact appetite and regulate body weight, satiety and hunger cues. Too much visceral fat can lead to insulin resistance, obesity and fatty liver disease, says Zarabi.
With that said, you do need enough body fat to protect your organs. For instance, vitamins A, D, E and K are all essential nutrients, but without enough body fat, you cannot absorb enough of these specific vitamins, she says.
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Lowering your body fat percentage means reducing your overall body fat. To lose one pound of fat, your body needs to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume—meaning to lose one pound of fat in a week, you need to reduce your caloric intake by 500 calories a day (or burn these calories through exercise), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Lowering your body fat percentage will likely involve reducing the number of calories you eat along with increasing your physical activity level.
A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you design a safe, nutritious, sustainable meal plan that reduces daily calorie intake to meet your weight goals—but isn’t overly restrictive. While fad diets might yield initial weight loss, research suggests that these diets are difficult to maintain long term due to their highly restrictive nature and tendency to eliminate entire food groups.
There are many ways to combine changes in your eating habits with elevated levels of physical activity to support body fat reduction. Studies show that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day correlates with sustained weight loss. Aerobic exercise can take many forms including walking, running, swimming and/or cycling, and should be based on your level of physical fitness.
In addition to reducing calories and increasing exercise, relatively new evidence suggests that weight training also has a positive impact on body fat percentage. A large 2022 systematic review of 54 studies in Sports Medicine concluded that resistance training effectively reduces body fat, including fat around the abdominal organs.
BMI, or body mass index, is a basic calculation achieved by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters. Basically, BMI is a very rough weight evaluation, says Atkinson, adding that many of his clients—who are very lean, elite bodybuilders—would be considered obese based on their BMI.
A quick and easy calculation, BMI essentially categorizes people as underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese, says Zarabi. “It doesn’t give us the full picture of your metabolic health, [and] it’s not the most accurate for classifying your health status because it doesn’t take into account how much of your total body weight is actually muscle,” she says. “Body fat percentage is always a better indicator.”
Your BMI can be a quick way to assess your risk for metabolic disease, as well as learn your weight classification, says Zarabi. “If you find yourself with a high BMI or out of range, it might be best to also test your body fat percentage,” she says.
Consider body fat testing if you notice unexplained weight gain of at least 10 pounds over the course of six months, recommends Atkinson, adding that everyone should get an annual physical to assess their general health. If your body fat is high, your doctor can discuss how to lower body fat percentage with you during these appointments.
Lastly, It’s important to remember that body fat percentage is just one marker of health—instead of obsessing over the number, hone in on your daily lifestyle habits, advises Zarabi. “We need to assess our sleep hygiene, stress levels, outlook [on] life, food choices and movement patterns, too,” she says.
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The short answer is that the body fat percentage range within which the rectus abdominis muscle—often referred to as the “six pack”—becomes visible varies depending on factors including gender. Working with a personal trainer and/or a nutritionist is the best way to determine what body fat percentage is ideal for your physical goals and make a plan to achieve them.
A doctor can determine a person’s body fat percentage using one of several tests: a DEXA scan, Bod Pod, calipers, hydrostatic weighing, CT and MRI scans and bioelectrical impedance scales.
BMI and body fat percentage make up different parts of the body composition picture. Both are used to assess health outcomes and risks in people suffering from obesity. However, BMI measurements don’t differentiate between lean muscle mass and fat mass and research shows that evaluating health based on BMI alone does not tell an individual’s whole health story. A health care provider determines how to proceed with care based on BMI, body fat percentage and other measurements.
High body fat percentage is caused by myriad factors, including age, underlying disease, gender, genetics, diet and level of physical fitness. A medical professional can help assess whether your body fat percentage puts you at risk for developing any common diseases and whether an underlying factor may be contributing and create a treatment plan based on those findings.
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Heidi Borst is a freelance journalist, healthcare content writer and certified nutrition coach with a love of all things health and wellness. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, MSN, Yahoo and more. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, Borst is a lifelong runner and general fitness enthusiast who is passionate about the physical and mental benefits of sleep and self-care.
Dr. John Morton is the system lead for surgical quality and bariatric services in the Yale New Haven Health System of six hospitals. He is also the vice-chair for quality, the division chief for bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Yale Medicine and a professor in the department of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine. He served as the chief of bariatric and minimally invasive surgery, the clinic chief for the Bariatric and Metabolic Interdisciplinary Clinic and the director of the Bariatric and Minimally Invasive Surgery Fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine from 2003 through 2019. With over 4,000 bariatric surgeries performed, Dr. Morton is recognized by numerous organizations as a bariatric surgery leader. He has the unique distinction of having served as Surgical Quality Director for two Top 20 US News & World Report Honor Roll Hospitals. His clinical skills have been recognized as being named Castle Connolly’s Physician of the Year for Clinical Excellence in 2012.