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Weight, BMI, body fat, waist-to-height or waist-to-hip ratios… There are plenty of metrics we can pay attention to when it comes to assessing our body composition.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at body fat percentage and ask what a healthy level of body fat looks like. We’ll outline why body composition matters, what a healthy body fat percentage is, and how to calculate your body fat percentage. 

So, if you’re wondering “What should my body fat percentage be”, you’re in the right place. Let’s get right into it. 

What is body composition?

A graphic titled "Human Body Composition" shows two figures, one male, one female. Each figure divided into color-coded sections to show their percentage muscle tissue, essential fat, non-essential fat, bone, and other tissue.

Body composition describes the percentage of body tissues – including body fat, muscle, and bone – that comprise your body. Your body contains varying amounts of subcutaneous fat, visceral fat, muscle, bone, water, and other tissues including your organs. 

Body composition is an important health and fitness metric and is broadly indicative of your overall health. A body composition scan (such as a DEXA scan) can give you more information on a range of metrics, including the following:  

Body fat

Body fat percentage is a good indicator of overall health and fitness. However, when we talk about body fat, it’s important to distinguish between two key types of fat in the body: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. A measure of your body fat percentage will include both of these two types of fat. 

Subcutaneous fat sits just below your skin and serves as an energy store. Higher levels of subcutaneous fat can be linked to your genetics, consuming more calories than you burn through activity, insulin resistance, or getting very little physical activity. 

Visceral fat 

The second type of fat, visceral fat, is stored within your abdominal cavity and around your internal organs. 

Visceral fat isn’t visible to the human eye, and can only be measured by using a body composition scan, such as a DEXA scan. However, a high level of overall body fat tends to correlate to a higher level of visceral fat.  A waist measurement is sometimes used as a rough estimate of visceral fat, with a measurement of over 35” (for women) and over 40” (for men) being indicative of a higher level of visceral fat. 

However, high levels of visceral fat aren’t always obvious – it’s possible to have higher visceral fat levels at a healthy weight. This is why a professional body composition scan is the most accurate way to assess your visceral fat percentage and overall body composition.  

Lean mass

Lean mass includes your muscles, as well as your bones, ligaments, tendons, and internal organs.

When it comes to assessing your body composition, your lean mass is just as important as your body fat percentage. Research has consistently linked a higher lean mass (and associated strength training) to a whole host of health benefits, including: 

As with other body composition metrics, such as body fat percentage and visceral fat levels, a DEXA scan is the most accurate way to assess your lean mass. 

Why is body composition important?

A man and a woman stand triumphantly in a gym, each smiling and posed to flex a bicep. They are holding a dumbbell and a gym towel.

Body composition is a great predictor of overall health and fitness. Having a healthy body composition can help decrease your risk of developing certain health conditions, such as: 

But what does a “healthy” body composition look like? 

Typically, when we talk about a healthy body composition we’re talking about some combination of lower body fat and higher lean mass. However, exactly what these numbers are will depend on your body type, genetics, and fitness goals. An ideal body composition will vary based on your age and sex. 

What is a healthy body fat percentage?

What does a healthy body fat percentage look like? 

The body fat percentages in the chart below show a healthy level based on your age and sex:

My Vital Metrics body fat percentage chart for men and women.

There are a lot of factors that can affect your body fat percentage, including your genetics, diet, and activity level. If you’re a professional athlete or consistently active, you may have a lower body fat percentage than those shown. 

What is a healthy body fat percentage for women?

A healthy body fat percentage for women will typically fall between 15-33%. For optimal fitness, you may want to aim for a body fat percentage of 16-25% – however, this will depend on your age. 

While it’s possible to maintain a body fat percentage lower than 15% – typically for competition – this level can lead to risks such as the loss of your menstrual cycle, development of low bone density or osteoporosis, and feelings of fatigue. 

Not sure what your body fat percentage is? We’ll outline the best ways to assess your body composition later in this article. 

What is a healthy body fat percentage for men?

A healthy body fat percentage for men will typically fall between 8-19%. For optimal fitness, you may want to aim for a body fat percentage between 10-15%, depending on your age. 

While a single-figure body fat percentage might be impressive, it typically isn’t sustainable for everyday life outside of fitness competition. Extremely low levels of body fat can lead to muscle loss, nervous system damage, dehydration, or low bone density and the development of osteoporosis. 

What is a healthy visceral fat percentage?

Visceral fat is an incredibly important metric when it comes to assessing your overall body composition. You can use the visceral fat chart below to assess whether your level of visceral fat is ideal or puts you at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. 

The chart shows the visceral fat ranges described as "ideal", "increased risk of cardiovascular disease", and "high risk of cardiovascular disease".

The best way to accurately measure your visceral fat levels is via a professional DEXA scan for body composition. If you’re concerned about your level of visceral fat, there are actions you can take to lower it, including: 

  • Eating a diet high in fresh foods, fibre, and good quality fats 
  • Engaging in regular exercise 
  • Incorporating both cardio and strength-training workouts  into your week
  • Having a good regular sleep pattern and taking steps to ensure good sleep quality 
  • Substantially lowering, limiting, or eliminating your alcohol intake 
  • Limiting your consumption of certain fats, including trans fats
  • Managing your psychological and physiological stress levels. 

How to calculate body fat percentage 

With so many different ways to measure (or estimate) body fat percentage, it can be hard to know which is best. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular body fat measurement methods. 

DEXA scan 

A DEXA scan is the gold standard in body composition testing and is the best way to accurately measure your body fat percentage. In addition to calculating your body fat percentage, a DEXA scan also measures these metrics:

  • Fat mass and distribution
  • Visceral fat
  • Android: gynoid ratio
  • Fat-free body weight
  • Muscle mass and distribution
  • Muscular balance
  • Bone density 

Plus, unlike the other body composition analysis methods on this list, a DEXA scan can tell you not just how much body fat you have, but where you are storing it. 

Bioelectrical impedance analysis 

You might have encountered bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) in your smart scale. BIA measures the rate at which an electrical current travels through the body to calculate an estimate of body fat mass. Then, an estimate of body fat percentage is calculated using demographic information such as sex, age, height, and weight. 

Crucially, this is an estimate – not a measurement. However, BIA-enabled scales can be an inexpensive and accessible way to track trends in your body fat percentage at home. Since DEXA scans can only be performed once every 2-3 months, keeping track of your body composition with BIA can be a great way to stay informed in between scans.  

Skinfold measurements 

A skinfold test is carried out using a piece of equipment called skinfold callipers which use skinfold thickness as an estimation of body fat percentage.

Skinfold measurements are usually taken from a few different locations, including the abdomen, triceps, quadriceps, below the shoulder blade, above the hip bone, and mid-chest area. These measurements can be input into an online body fat percentage calculator to calculate an estimate of body fat percentage. 

Are there limitations to body fat percentage measurements?

The biggest limitation of body fat percentage measurements is their accuracy. 

When measured using a precise and reliable method such as a professional DEXA scan, body fat percentage measurements are highly accurate and a great tool for assessing overall health. However, inaccurate measurements can be misleading at best – and damaging at worst

If you’re looking to better understand and improve your body fat percentage, getting a professional DEXA scan for body composition is the best place to start. 

Which is better: BMI or body fat percentage?

An open notebook, in which the formula for calculating BMI is written, sits atop a table alongside a green, curled tape measure, half a kiwi, and a red apple.

If you’re looking to assess your overall health and fitness, you might have started by weighing yourself and calculating your BMI. 

BMI takes your height and weight and performs a simple calculation to determine whether you are a healthy weight for your height and sex. BMI is commonly used in medical and fitness settings alike to provide a quick estimate of your health. 

However, BMI frequently fails to offer an accurate picture of a person’s health. Not only is BMI more accurate on a population level than it is for a specific individual, but BMI is also more inaccurate for certain groups of people, including certain ethnic groups, people who are extremely tall or short, and those with a higher muscle mass. 

The biggest flaw in the use of BMI for assessing health may lie in this last point – when BMI uses your weight, it doesn’t distinguish between weight from fat mass and weight from muscle mass. For this reason, an “overweight” or “obese” BMI could reflect either a person with a high level of body fat or a high level of muscle mass – there’s no way of knowing from this single figure. 

Unlike BMI, your body fat percentage is a measure of your body composition and offers a better picture of your overall fitness level. Other measures – such as waist size and waist: height ratio – have also been shown to be better predictors of certain health conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, than BMI.

So, if you’re wondering if BMI or body fat percentage is more accurate, the answer will almost always be body fat. If you calculate your BMI, make sure to take the result with a grain of salt – and take your current body composition into account, too. 

Need help reaching a healthy body fat percentage?

 

A team of personal trainers of a variety of genders and racial backgrounds stand with their arms crossed, grinning, in front of a blurred gym background.

The single most important aspect of reaching a healthy body fat percentage is to know exactly where you stand now. Understanding your current body composition via an accurate and reliable method can help you to know the following:

  • How much weight should I be looking to lose/gain?
  • How much muscle mass do I have and do I need to take that into account?
  • What amounts of food should I be eating to support my goal as best I can?

And then as the plan progresses:

  • How is my current plan working, and do I need to change anything in order to continue to achieve my goals?

The best way to accurately assess your body fat percentage and overall body composition is with a professional DEXA scan.

Whether you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, or looking to optimise your performance, My Vital Metrics is here to help you reach your full potential. Our DEXA scans for body composition and bone density are a great investment for anyone looking to improve their health and fitness. 

To find out more or to book your free fitness and nutritional consultation, reach out to My Vital Metrics today!