Body Fat Percentage: Everything You Need to Know
Both high and low levels of body fat can be associated with poor health. Although many people see it as something undesired and unsightly, body fat plays some very important roles in your body and some body fat is actually essential for normal health.
Attaining very low body fat levels – like those people in glossy fitness magazines – is something that should only ever be achieved and sustained for short periods of time. Despite the perception on social media, this is actually the reality for many fitness models.
Low levels of body fat are associated with low levels of steroid hormones (or sex hormones) in both men and women. For women, this can lead to menstrual cycle disruption and can have a whole host of negative health implications you really want to avoid.
High amounts of body fat are associated with increased risk of heart disease, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, impaired reproductive function and several types of cancers. This means when it comes to healthy body fat levels, you want to aim for the sweet spot. What that sweet spot is will depend on you as an individual.
METHODS FOR MEASURING BODY FAT
There are several different methods you can use to measure your body fat percentage. However the truth is none of these techniques are 100% accurate. So no matter what method you use, the results should only act as a guideline to measure your progress.
Two of the more accurate ways to measure your body fat percentage are DEXA scanning and Displacement Plethysmography (DP). DEXA is a full body scanning process originally designed to measure bone mineral density but it can also measure body fat levels and lean mass fairly accurately.
DP is usually performed in a ‘Bod Pod’ – a specialist air tight pod that works by measuring the displacement air a person produces. These tests can be expensive and although they’re considered accurate, they’re prone to their own unique errors. So like any other method, they’re never 100% accurate.
If you want to go for a cheaper option, there’s also bioelectrical impedance testing (BIT). These machines come in several forms and ‘work’ by measuring the electrical resistance of your body which corresponds to your fat and lean mass. BIT machines range from those you simply grab some handles (or have pads on scales) through to the placement of electrodes on the skin at the wrist and ankle.
Those with multiple channels are more accurate but can be highly variable in their accuracy due to hydration status amongst other things. This means day-to-day measures can be wildly varied, so how much weight we place on these measures is debatable.
The unfortunate truth is no matter what methods you use, accuracy can be influenced by several different factors, so it’s important to try and measure yourself (regardless of technique) under the same conditions (time of day, temperature, number of meals and with proper hydration).?
WHAT SIMPLER METHODS ARE THERE TO DETECT BODY COMPOSITION CHANGES?
You can also use standardised body measurements to track progress. Although these don’t directly measure body fat as such, they’re a good indicator of progress and changes to your body over time. These types of measures could include skin fold measurements using callipers, circumferences at key locations (waist, hips, arms, legs, chest) and the most obvious measure of progress is weighing scales.
Like mentioned earlier, these measures can still be influenced by the time of day, the quality of the measurement tools (high quality, metal engineered callipers are much more accurate compared to cheaper, plastic ones), hydration status etc. So you should always measure consistently and if possible using a person skilled in taking measurements. There’s actually an accreditation in making sure people using these measures do so consistently and accurately.
Whatever methods you use for tracking body fat, the key is to not put too much focus on the number it comes out with, but to use changes to guide whether you are making progress over time. At the end of the day, does it matter what your percentage is if you look and feel great?
This is why the best way to measure progress for many people is through photos. Seeing visible changes can be motivating and remind people how far they’ve come. Photos place more focus on how you look and feel, rather than focusing on what is in reality a number (or numbers) that are either inaccurate or do not reflect the way you look.
WHAT IS A HEALTHY BODY FAT RANGE?
Trying to nail down a healthy body fat range can be challenging. However, typically speaking a healthy range would be in the region of 10-20% for men and 20-30% for women.
Unfortunately, like we discussed previously, getting an accurate body fat percentage can be challenging. But what might be more important for health is not just your body fat percentage but also how your body fat is stored. Fat stored around our mid-section tends to be in the form of visceral fat, surrounds our internal organs and is associated with poorer health outcomes.
Therefore, from a purely health perspective a measure such as waist to hip ratio is a simple measure of health risk. To calculate this, you simply divide your waist circumference by hip circumference. We know overweight and obese people are at increased risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes and this would be classified as a waist to hip ratio of 0.8 for women and 0.9 for men.
Monitoring your body fat percentage is a method of tracking the progress of your physique. But you need to be wary of the limitations in accuracy, repeatability, skill and credentials of the equipment you’re using and the people measuring.
By far the most simple and easy way to measure progress is by using photographs and simple measurements of weight, hip, waist and working until you have a physique you’re happy with. Not by trying to quantify everything numerically!
From a health perspective, maintaining a normal range of body fat levels is important. However, considering the challenges of accurately determining body fat, the type of equipment you have available and the influence fat distribution has on health, we can use other measures that are much simpler to quantify body fat distribution and estimate how our fat mass might impact on our health in the long term.