The battle of the bulge. Some of us fight it our entire lives – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always trying to come out on top. We diet and exercise and try our best to make good, healthy choices – eating more vegetables and skipping dessert. It’s not just about appearance, though; it’s about our health. Because when it comes to body fat, too much or too little can be life-threatening. That’s why it’s essential to know if you have a healthy body fat percentage.
Most of us can determine if we’ve gained or lost weight based on the bathroom scale or our favorite pair of pants. I think most of us are even guilty of having a pair of ‘fat pants’ laying around for when we’ve overindulged a bit and are a little thicker than usual. And don’t get me started on leggings. They’re the perfect way to spoil your diet without having to face the consequences of a button that just won’t quite snap. But how can we tell if our extra holiday/quarantine/vacation pounds are more than just an aesthetic inconvenience? That’s where actual measurements and percentages can play a role in keeping us out of a physical danger zone.
Body Mass Index (BMI) vs. Body Fat Percentage
A while back, we looked at how to determine if you have a healthy body mass index (BMI), which is a calculation method that considers your height, age, and weight and tells you your body mass score. Based on that score, you can tell if you’re in a healthy or unhealthy range. While that technique helps find out an overall indication of a healthy weight, it’s not the most accurate method you can use. That’s where calculating your body fat percentage comes into play.
The percent of your body that’s fat is an excellent indicator of how healthy you are and if you’re at a higher risk of health issues like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, or diabetes. Finding out where you fall on the fat scale can assist you in making healthy choices or changes if you’re reaching a dangerous level.
Measuring Body Fat
There are many methods you can use to measure your body fat percentage, some of which are readily available to the general public and some that you’ll need to discuss with your doctor or visit a healthcare facility to access. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on two of the most common and convenient methods available for either at-home measurements or a trip to the local fitness or nutrition center.
The first technique utilizes either Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) or Bioimpedance Spectroscopy (BIS) to measure your body composition by sending small electrical currents through your body to measure body composition (fat vs. muscle). I personally own a scale that, after entering in my height, gender, and other information, first weighs me and then uses an electronic pulse that courses through my body and gives me a body fat percentage reading. There are a number of scales like this on the market with various success rates when it comes to providing an accurate reading.
I don’t take this as a super-accurate percentage, but it’s very helpful because it’s close enough to give me a good idea of my percentage (these devices have a margin of error of 3-5%). More importantly, it allows me to track any changes. If it’s been a while, and I know I’ve been putting on some pounds, it’s nice for me to see how my body fat percentage has been affected. It can be very telling if I’ve denied the actual level that I’ve affected my health with bad diet and exercise choices and can be very motivating for me to get back to a healthier lifestyle.
Another technique to find out your body fat percentage is to visit a nutritionist or a trained employee at a gym or fitness center and have them take a series of measurements to calculate your percentage. This is a long-used method that’s a great way to determine your current rate, especially if you’ve either never had your body fat calculated or if it’s been a long time since you’ve checked it out. The process is actually pretty simple. The person measuring will pinch the upper layer of your skin and use a skinfold caliper to take a measurement. Skinfold calipers measure the thickness of your subcutaneous fat — the fat underneath the skin — at specific body locations. Measurements are typically taken at either 3 or 7 different sites on the body.
The number of measurement sites used will depend on the technique of the person doing the measuring. The most common places to measure for women are the triceps, suprailiac (your love handle area), and thigh. When the 7-site measurement method is used, measurements will also be taken on the chest, the armpit area, and under the shoulder blade. The margin of error for this method is typically 3.5-5%, and it’s imperative that you go to someone that’s been trained to perform this technique. Otherwise, there is very little chance you’ll get an accurate reading.
Multi-compartment models are considered the best technique for determining your body fat percentage, but it’s often only available in medical and research facilities. If you’re still concerned about your body fat percentage and want a more precise analysis, you can consider the following methods, which are a bit more robust and typically require a trip to the doctor’s office. They include hydrostatic weighing, 3-D body scanners, or Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DXA). If you are concerned about getting the most accurate reading possible, it would be worth discussing one of these techniques with your doctor.
What’s a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
When determining a healthy body fat percentage, it’s important to note that while a too high rate can be dangerous, so is a percentage that is too low. We all need at least some body fat to survive, and that amount varies for each person based on body composition, age, gender, genetics, and activity level. However, there are some baseline percentages that typically fit most of the female population (percentages courtesy of livestong.com):
- Low – Ages 19-29 (<19%); Ages 30-39 (<21%); Ages 40-49 (<24%); Ages 50+ (<28%)
- Healthy – Ages 19-29 (19-22%); Ages 30-39 (20-24%); Ages 40-49 (23-27%); Ages 50+ (27-31%)
- Acceptable – Ages 19-29 (22-25%); Ages 30-39 (23-28%); Ages 40-49 (26-31%); Ages 50+ (31-34%)
- High – Ages 19-29 (25-30%); Ages 30-39 (26-32%); Ages 40-49 (29-34%); Ages 50+ (34-38%)
- Obese – Ages 19-29 (>30%); Ages 30-39 (>31%); Ages 40-49 (>33%); Ages 50+ (>37%)
Fit or fat? I personally have been toeing that line since the end of quarantine, and I worry if I don’t get back on track soon, the scales are going to tip in the wrong direction. I try to do a once-a-week weigh-in first thing in the morning to make sure I’ve not fallen too far behind my personal goals, and my body fat scale is helping me make sure I’m not too far off-base. If only it were as easy to lose weight as it is to gain.
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This article is for informational purposes only. If you have concerns about your weight, you should consult with your doctor.