Losing body fat tends to be the primary focus for many weightlifters, athletes, and other health-conscious individuals, but it’s a bit of a tricky topic. To the general public, the less body fat you have, the healthier you are and the better you look, but that’s not necessarily true. Unfortunately, not many people know how to accurately calculate, track, or even estimate their body fat percentages.
Here’s a better look at body fat, how to calculate your body fat percentage, and how that information can help you with your personal fitness goals.
What is Body Fat?
Body fat tends to get a bad rap. While it’s true that too much fat can be bad for your health and increase your risk for a wide range of disorders, for the most part, fat is actually good and necessary to your survival. Even the fittest of athletes have some amount of body fat. To reform your previous notions about body fat, you have to understand that there are different types of body fat.
The first is white fat. This exists all over your body, including your stomach, arms, legs and even your face. It stores energy you’re not immediately using and provides insulation and padding for your bones and organs. White fat is also necessary for producing adiponectin, a protein involved with the breakdown of fatty acids and regulating glucose levels. Unexpectedly, too much body fat will actually hamper production of adiponectin, potentially increasing your risk of heart problems and diabetes.
A second type of body fat is known as brown fat. It is mainly found around the collarbone, chest, and neck. Infants tend to have more of it to help keep their growing bodies warm, but scientists later found that brown fat is present in adults as well. Brown fat activates when you’re in cold temperatures, burning energy to generate heat and keep you warm. Some supplements reportedly help to convert white fat into brown fat, while irisin, a naturally occurring chemical in your body, may cause white fat to act like brown fat.
Subcutaneous fat is another form of body fat. It lives just under the skin and is generally what doctors will use to measure your body fat percentage. Subcutaneous fat is generally harmless, though some studies suggest that subcutaneous fat in the belly could lead to problems.
The last main form of body fat is visceral fat. This lies deep within your body, wrapping around the organs in your abdomen. You can’t grab or touch it, and you can’t actually measure it directly without an MRI or CT scan, though larger bellies generally mean more visceral fat. Visceral fat is considered “toxic” because of the harm it presents to your body. It produces cytokines, proteins known for increasing inflammation and inhibiting the production of chemicals involved in metabolism. Visceral fat increases your risk of diabetes, cardiovascular problems, dementia, and stroke.
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Measuring Your Body Fat Percentage
Your body fat percentage is the percentage of fat in your body compared to everything else. Generally when a person measures their body fat percentage, they get two numbers: their fat mass and their lean mass. The concept of lean mass itself can be deceptive. It’s not just a measure of your muscle. It also takes into account your skin, bones, organs, hair, water and everything else in your body. At the same time, body fat percentage can help you better gauge your progress than a scale. A scale might show no changes or it might say that you actually gained weight after working out when in reality, you may have gotten rid of fat and put on muscle instead.
Body Fat Calipers
There are several methods of measuring your body fat percentage. Your doctor will likely use a tool known as a body fat caliper. This device pinches skin folds pulled away from your muscle. Your doctor will take the measurement and refer to a chart to determine the body fat percentage. Some doctors will take measurements from different areas in your body. You can buy your own set of calipers to measure yourself. While they may underestimate your body fat percentage, they can still be surprisingly accurate for a fairly cheap price.
Body Fat Percentage Calculator
You can estimate your body fat percentage even without calipers. You can use a body fat percentage calculator, like the U.S. Navy calculator and the YMCA calculator. These calculators require simple measurements, including your weight, your height, your waist size and sometimes your neck size. Each calculator uses different formulas and algorithms, and it is not the most accurate method as it tends to overestimate the amount of body fat you actually have, which you can expect considering it only takes a few measurements. However, you can use these calculators as a general reference point for your own personal progress.
Body Fat Percentage vs. BMI
Many people turn to their body mass index as an indicator of personal health. BMI takes your height and weight and uses the ratio of the two to determine if you are underweight, normal, overweight or obese.
Body mass index can be helpful to newcomers just beginning to pay better attention to their health, but it doesn’t necessarily have a correlation to your body fat percentage. You could have 100 pounds of muscle or 100 pounds of fat and your BMI would be the same for both. It also doesn’t take into account body type. An individual with a stockier, broader build who weighed the same as someone with a slimmer build might be considered underweight on the body mass index.
What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
There are different ideas about what constitutes a “healthy” body fat percentage. Where some take into account age, others take into account gender and your personal fitness goals. The generally agreed upon amounts:
- Women with over 31 percent body fat are considered obese. Men with over 26 percent body fat are considered obese.
- Healthy body fat percentage for women is 25 to 31 percent. Healthy body fat for men is 18 to 25 percent.
- To be fit, body fat percentage should be 21 to 24 percent in women and 14 to 17 percent in men.
- For athletes, women should have a body fat percentage of 14 to 20 percent, while men should have a body fat percentage of 6 to 13 percent.
- For essential fat, women need a body fat percentage of 10 to 13 percent. Essential fat for men should be 2 to 5 percent.
Your ideal body fat percentage is generally based on what you want for your own fitness goals. Essential fat is the bare minimum amount of fat you need to survive. Any amount less and your body would likely suffer damage and you may experience organ failure. Generally, even getting low enough to reach essential fat levels is dangerous. Bodybuilders should only reach this level when they’re preparing for a show or event. Otherwise, you should have a much higher body fat percentage, generally in the athlete range, for your own health and safety. If you just want to look and feel healthy, aim for the fit range.
Why Should You Know Your Body Fat Percentage?
To determine your fat mass, simply multiply your weight by your body fat percentage. To determine your lean mass, subtract that number from your total weight. You can use these numbers to gauge your personal progress.
This all can help you better plan your own goals. Knowing how much fat mass you have can help you determine how much fat you could lose each week. For example, you may want to lose 10 pounds in two months. Understanding how much fat mass you have, you can determine whether that’s a reasonable goal to shoot for.
You may also reconsider how you look at your own body and start measuring more by body fat percentage than the number the scale shows you. This can help you make better decisions about your workouts and diet. You may be losing lean mass, which means you are training too hard or need to adjust your diet.
Why You Shouldn’t Focus on Your Body Fat Percentage Too Hard
At the same time, try not to revolve your entire workout and diet programs on your body fat percentage or really any single measurement, including your BMI or weight. A six-pack does not necessarily connote good health, and there are plenty of large individuals who work out and eat well who are healthier than any lean person who doesn’t exercise or eat well. We all have different body types, shapes, sizes and fat distributions.
Your body fat percentage certainly helps to put a number value to track how your exercise and diet are affecting you and how your clothes fit. It can be a feasible goal to strive for. What those numbers don’t measure is how you actually feel, your personal health, your athleticism and your value as a human being. You can’t put a real number on any of those things.