Medically reviewed by Jamie Johnson, RDN
Your body fat percentage is a measurement of how much of your weight is made up of fat, compared to lean tissue, like bones, muscles, and organs. Your body fat percentage can give you an idea of how healthy you are, since higher rates are closely associated with the risk of chronic disease.
There are many ways to test your body fat percentage—some are inexpensive and easy, others are more expensive and complex.
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percentage is a way to measure how much of your weight comes from fat, as opposed to lean mass, like your muscles and your organs. Measuring your body fat percentage can give you a more accurate view of your health and your risk for disease.
This is different from a measurement called body mass index (BMI). BMI is a rough estimate of body fat, but it can be inaccurate for many people. One of the glaring limitations of BMI is that it only takes into account your overall weight. It can’t tell the difference between lean body mass, muscle mass, and fat storage.
For someone who, for instance, has more muscle weight than the average person, a BMI estimate may label them as overweight. BMI also can’t tell in which part of your body you carry extra fat. Studies show that fat in the hips and thighs does not contribute to ill health effects like abdominal fat does, so it’s important to use a more accurate method of measurement.
Ways to Calculate Body Fat Percentage
There are many different ways to measure your body fat percentage. Each way is a bit different, so you’ll want to consider the pros and cons of each before choosing one. Here are some common ways to calculate your body fat percentage.
Body Fat Calculator
This is by far the easiest way to measure your body fat percentage, though it isn’t quite as accurate as other methods. You can find free body fat calculators online, which will ask you to weigh and measure yourself first. Since women have a higher body fat percentage as compared to men, there are two different calculations.
It’s best to measure first thing in the morning after you’ve used the bathroom and before you have had anything to eat or drink. This will give you a more accurate measurement. It’s also a good idea to measure several times over the course of weeks or months and track the number. That will give you more information to work with, instead of just a one-time number.
A little more accurate than a body fat calculator is using a skinfold caliper. A caliper is a tool you can use to measure how much body fat you have. Using the tool, you pinch and measure different parts of your body, which tells you in millimeters how much fat you have underneath the skin in that area.
You can ask your doctor to measure your body fat with a caliper, or you can purchase one to use at home. There are a variety available online, with some costing less than $30 and others costing a few hundred dollars.
It’s recommended to pinch and measure multiple parts of your body, such as the back of your arm, your thigh, and different parts of your abdomen and back. If you purchase your own skinfold caliper, it most likely will come with a chart to find your body fat percentage. If it does not, there are online calculators you can use to plug in your skinfold measurements and find your body fat percentage.
Also called underwater weighing, this is more accurate than other methods. When performed properly, hydrostatic weighing can be accurate to 1.8 to 2.8 percent compared to more advanced methods.
It may be difficult to find a place that will do this for you, as most hydrostatic weighing is done for athletes or scientific research. Since fat and lean body mass have different densities, weighing on land and underwater and comparing the two numbers can give you a fairly accurate body fat measurement.
Hydrostatic weighing has long been viewed as the gold standard for getting an accurate measurement of body fat. Now, there are newer methods, such as MRI or CT scans. Hydrostatic weighing is still considered very accurate and much less expensive. Some fitness centers or university exercise science departments offer hydrostatic weighing.
Air Displacement Plethysmography
This method requires a high-tech tool only available at some medical or wellness centers. Commonly called a BodPod, it is a machine that you sit inside for a couple of minutes while it measures the change in air volume around you. It is a painless way to calculate your body density. From that, the technician can tell you how much of your body weight is lean mass and how much is fat mass.
Considering its accuracy, the BodPod test is fairly inexpensive. It’s easy to find one for around $50. The whole test takes less than 15 minutes, with only two minutes being inside the chamber itself. The chamber is egg-shaped and contains a chair and a clear window to see out of.
DEXA stands for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry and it’s a way to measure your body density via the absorption rate of X-ray photons. The X-rays are low energy and safe. The machine measures how much of the photons are absorbed by different parts of your body, which gives an accurate picture of your body density. Studies show that the DEXA scan is cheaper and easier to use to distinguish risk among individuals with type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
This test is only done in medical settings and requires a skilled technician. Because of that, the price tends to be a bit higher, usually a few hundred dollars. The DEXA scan is one of the most accurate methods of measuring body fat percentage. One major plus to using a DEXA scan is that it can tell you where your body fat is distributed and how much is subcutaneous fat (fat under your skin) and how much is visceral fat (fat surrounding your organs).
What Is a 'Good' Body Fat Percentage?
It’s important to remember that body fat is a useful and necessary part of your body, as it’s used to store vitamins, maintain healthy pregnancies, and protect internal organs. Biologically, women need to have more fat stores than men, and a healthy body fat percentage also changes with age. Studies show that healthy body fat percentages are in the following ranges:
Anything above those ranges is considered obesity and is associated with a higher risk of several diseases. But don’t forget that these stats don’t take into consideration age or ethnicity.
Why Is Body Fat Percentage Important?
While your total weight may not give much information about your health, learning how much body fat you have can help you learn your risks for certain diseases.
People who have body fat percentages higher than the average are at an increased risk for certain chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers. This is why it’s important to learn your body fat percentage and take steps if the number indicates increased risk for disease.
How to Lower Body Fat
It’s important to remember that you can be healthy even with a little extra body fat. A healthy weight looks different for everyone. Not everyone needs to lose fat, and some people-like pregnant women-should never try to lose weight on purpose.
Many people begin healthy lifestyle programs with the goal of losing weight, but rather, the goal should be to lose fat in particular. Your body weight is made up of lean tissue like your internal organs and your muscles. It’s possible to lose muscle when you’re trying to lose weight overall. There are ways to keep your healthy muscle and even grow new muscle while reducing your fat stores.
Here are some tips to safely reduce your body fat to healthier levels while keeping your muscle mass.
Food plays a bigger role in weight loss than exercise. One way to reduce your body fat percentage is by watching your food intake. There are many ways you can go about this:
Watch your carb intake: Your body needs the hormone insulin in order to store fat. When you reduce carbohydrates in your diet-things like bread, pasta, and rice-your body releases less insulin. This can result in less fat storage, and using up some of the fat stores you already have.
Watch your portions: While insulin plays a bigger role in weight gain, calories still do count to a point. Instead of spending time counting each calorie, start by reducing your portions.
Focus on eating vegetables: Not only are vegetables low in calories, but they provide antioxidants and other plant compounds that can reduce inflammation in your body. Lower inflammation can be helpful for weight loss.
Focus on adding protein: Studies show that eating more protein while trying to lose weight can help you retain muscle mass and lose fat mass.
Exercise does burn calories, but studies show that for weight loss, the calorie burning effect of exercise isn’t as important as its full body benefits. Mixing cardio exercises, like walking or swimming, with resistance exercises, like weight lifting, can help you achieve full body improvements and maintain muscle mass as you lose weight.
While weight loss seems to be all about the food and exercise, your lifestyle can affect your ability to lose weight easily. Focus on reducing stress and improving the amount of quality sleep you get. Feeling good each day can help you to feel motivated to work on your goals.
A Quick Review
Measuring your body fat percentage can be a useful way to learn more about your health. With the different options available, you should be able to find a measurement method that works for you. Following these steps can help you reduce your body fat percentage to a healthier level and reduce your risk for many diseases.
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