A Guide to Body Fat Percentage
Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. This article uses the terms “female” and/or “male” to refer to the sex assigned at birth.
This article will discuss body fat percentage, ways to calculate it, and include tables for body fat percentage ranges for females and males. It will also discuss the limitations of these calculations.
Your body composition or body fat percentage is the amount of fat in your body compared to lean tissue. Lean tissue includes:
- body water
Though your weight may indicate how healthy you are, it does not tell the whole story. No matter your weight, the higher your body fat percentage, the more you may be at risk for health-related issues, such as:
People often confuse body fat percentage with body mass index (BMI). They are separate measurements. BMI is measured by taking your weight in kilograms (kg) and dividing it by your height in meters squared. The limitation of BMI is that it does not take age and sex into account.
There are many ways to measure your body fat percentage. However, keep in mind that these are all estimates and not exact calculations.
Skinfold calipers measure the layer of fat just under the skin or the subcutaneous fat. This is done at specific locations on your body.
To measure your body fat percentage, check on three areas:
Pinch the skin to pull the muscle away from the fat. Measure that fold with the calipers. Be sure to measure on the same side each time. The recommendation is to take the average of two measurements in each location. You can then input them into an online calculator that will give you your body fat percentage.
The easiest way to use calipers, however, is simply using them to monitor your body fat over time. If the thickness of your skinfolds is going down, that means you are losing fat.
Calipers are one of the least expensive and easiest ways to measure body fat.
Measuring your body circumference is an easy to perform and highly accessible way of calculating body fat. There are different ways you can use body circumference.
This is a way to check whether you are carrying excess fat in the abdominal area. For an accurate reading, measure your waist with a tape measure at the midpoint between the bottom of your ribs and your hips. This is just above the belly button.
When done properly, this measurement is highly accurate. Keep in mind you can have a body fat percentage that is in the healthy range and still carry excess fat in your abdomen. This still puts you at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
This measurement compares the ratio between your waist circumference and your hip circumference. To calculate this ratio using a tape measure:
- Measure your waist midway between the bottom of your ribs and your hips.
- Measure your hip circumference around the widest part of your buttocks.
- Divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference.
The higher the ratio, the more fat around your abdominal area. This is often referred to as an apple shape.
A 2020 study showed that waist-height ratio (WHtR) is one of the best ways of measuring visceral fat. There is an association between visceral fat and cardiovascular and kidney diseases.
To measure your WHtR:
- Use a string or tape measure to measure your height.
- Fold the string in half.
- Check to see whether it fits around your waist.
If the string does not fit around your waist, you are carrying excess abdominal fat and may be at an increased risk for diabetes and other health-related issues.
Other body fat percentage measurements
Other ways to measure your body fat percentage typically involve more equipment. These include:
- Hydrostatic weighing: This involves getting your weight while underwater and calculating your fat based on your density. While this is a highly accurate way of calculating body fat percentage, it involves specialized equipment and is often costly.
- Bioelectrical impedance: This involves smart scales or handheld devices to measure your body fat. However, it is not always the most reliable source for making these calculations due to many variables, like dehydration.
- Air displacement (Bodpod): Bodpod technology is similar to underwater weighing. The difference is that Bodpods use air instead of water. The accuracy of air displacement is similar to hydrostatic weighing but may be less expensive.
- Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA): DEXA uses specialized X-rays to measure levels of tissue density. While highly accurate in calculating body fat percentage, it is also expensive.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) provides ranges of body fat percentage by age group and sex.
The ACSM provides the following ranges for males based on age groups.
One of the biggest limitations to body fat percentage is that the calculations are only estimates. There is no set way to get completely accurate measurements of body fat.
Another limitation of body fat percentage calculations is that they are easy to miscalculate if you do not know exactly how to measure the areas on your body with the calipers or tape measure. The other ways to measure that involve specialized equipment that may also be difficult to find, and they can also be expensive.
Body fat percentage is a useful calculation to show your overall health. Weight is only one aspect of your overall health. It is important to keep an eye on your weight, but it does not tell the whole story.
There are other ways to calculate your body fat percentage. The easiest one tends to be skinfold calipers. However, other ways are done by experts and that use specialized equipment. Their limitations are that they may be more expensive.
The overall limitation of body fat percentage is that no matter how it is calculated, it is still an estimate.
Speak with your doctor about body fat percentage and what impact your calculation could have on your health.