Body Fat Percentage (BF%)

While Body Mass Index (BMI) is the traditional method for assessing health through weight, it can be unreliable because it doesn’t take into account body type or composition. A less used but more reliable method is Body Fat Percentage (BF%). It measures what percent of your body is composed of fat. It does not take into account other factors such as muscle mass, bone density and lifestyle choices. As we age our BF% increases as muscle mass decreases.

Essential Fat: This is the minimum percentage required for basic functioning and survival. We need a certain amount of fat for our bodies to function. We need it for insulation as well as protection of internal organs. For women this is thought to be around 10-13% and men it is around 2-5%.  This is often what bodybuilders will aim for on competition day. This range is very risky, unsustainable and not recommended for a healthy lifestyle.

Athletes: Women between 14-20% and men between 6-13% will fall into this category. This level is really only healthy if you have a higher amount of muscle mass (such as competitive athletes). This range is especially questionable for women, since some women will stop menstruating at these levels.

Fitness: This is considered the ideal range for fitness. Women fall into this category from 21-24% and men from 14-17%. This does not mean everyone in this category is actually fit or that people above this are not. This is generally the optimal range, but other factors need to be taken into account.

Acceptable: A BF of 25-31% for women and 18-24% for men is considered acceptable. This is what most people in the United States would consider a normal healthy weight. Many people who eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly will fall into this category.

Obese: A BF of 32%+ in women and 25%+ in men is considered obese. People in this range are at increased risk for chronic diseases.  Most American adults would fall into this category.

*Keep in mind this is different than obese according to BMI. The obesity rate according to these standards would be higher than BMI standards.

 

How to Determine Your Body Fat Percentage

  • Skin Fold Caliper: These cost around $5 and are a reliable way for measurement if done properly. You pinch your skin and pull the fat away from the muscle. Learning how to do this properly may take some practice, but is very useful if you learn how to do it right. You can calculate your skin fold measurements here.
  • Tape Measure: You can take measurements of yourself then input them into an online calculator. This isn’t the most reliable method, but it is quick and easy. One of the major factors that could come into play is your body shape (also measuring inaccurately/ not quite in the right place).
  • Bioelectric Impedance Analysis (BIA): This measures the electrical current in your body combined with your height and weight. It makes an estimation of your BF% based on this. This is not the most accurate method because hydration can impact the result, but you can do it at home and it may feel less awkward than using a skin fold caliper. If you use this method, make sure you measure at a consistent time to keep the hydration levels similar (first thing in the morning is a good bet).
  • Hydrostatic Weighing: This has a high degree of accuracy for measuring BF%. It also requires going out of your way to pay $100+ to get dunked in a tank of water. For most people, this isn’t a very practical option.
  • DEXA Scan: This is considered the best measurement. It includes other factors in addition to BF%. However, it costs about $250 so it is only worth it if getting a precise reading is important to you.
  • The Mirror Method:  If you are able to look at yourself objectively, you will probably be able to make a decent estimation of your BF% in the mirror. If you only care about being in a healthy range and liking the way you look, then this is probably a good option for you. This is especially the case if like me, you have a tendency to obsess when numbers get involved. You can do this by comparing yourself to various visual guides and the characteristics described of each range (links below). That said, looking at ourselves objectively isn’t always easy. I recommend combining this with at least one of the other methods.

There is a good chance that the gym you belong to offers body fat measurements. This may be a cost effective way to be assessed by an expert (or at least someone who knows what they are doing). Some gyms may offer this with an overall fitness assessment.

Setting Goals

Body fat percentage is especially useful in tracking progress when you are at or around a healthy weight. You can track this along with progress in performance. Body fat percentage may be more difficult to accurately measure without a professional if you are significantly overweight, since there are less noticeable changes in definition.

When it comes down to it, the ideal BF% (once you are in a healthy range) is more a matter of personal preference. While you can be relatively healthy while overweight, the BMI and BF% guidelines were set as they are for a reason. Most women will probably want to aim between 20-25% and men between 15-20%.

Strength training plays an important role in finding a good balance. This is especially the case if you are losing weight, since you want to make sure what is lost is actually fat. Muscle is also denser and burns more calories than fat, so increasing muscle mass will give your metabolism a nice boost. Not to mention, it makes you look toned and being physically strong feels kind of bad ass.

Learn More:

Body Fat Pictures and Percentages (highly recommend)

Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart: How Lean Should You Be

5 Ways to Measure Body Fat Percentage

Body Fat Pictures of Men & Women (highly recommend)

Body Fat Images for Comparison

Everything You Need to Know About Body Fat Percentage

National Body Fat Percentage Average

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Why I am Grateful for Having Been Overweight

I used to have a lot of resentment towards myself for having been overweight. I was mad at myself for letting myself go like that. I was ashamed. But as I have become further removed from being overweight, I have taken a new perspective on the experience and have become grateful for it.

I believe that good can be taken from any situation if you just find a new way to look at it. Rather than looking at a challenge you face as a problem, look at it as an opportunity for growth. See how you can take that challenge and create something good out of it. See how you can use it to find a new appreciation towards other aspects of your life. This is how I have become grateful for my experience with being overweight.

I don’t think it is likely that I would be as fit as I am today if I hadn’t first become so overweight. I wouldn’t have been uncomfortable with myself enough to take action. People usually don’t take action and change when they feel comfortable with where they are. This is why I think a little bit of discomfort and suffering is needed to become our best selves. I believe that wherever our greatest sources of fear and suffering are in life are also where our greatest potential for growth is.

I think having been overweight has made me appreciate my health more. It has made me love of my body more. I think it has made me enjoy food and all forms of physical pleasure more. I have learned to savor each and every bite of food I eat. Each meal is more satisfying to me. I appreciate indulging more because I do so less often and I do it with a more positive mindset.

I think my experience with being overweight has made me more confident with who I am today both internally and externally. Even though there are days where I look in the mirror and am not happy with how I look, for the most part I am. To be honest, I was kind of obsessed with mirrors when my weight loss first hit me. It was a version of myself I had never seen. I remember seeing my reflection in a window while walking down the street, and at first it didn’t even register that it was me. I think that was when I first really saw myself differently. I think seeing myself without realizing it made me able to see myself for what I really look like.

I think being overweight has made me appreciate clothes more. I actually enjoy shopping now. I like to wear things that I find flattering. I feel more comfortable playing with new patterns, colors and styles. I use clothes to highlight the parts of myself that I love rather than hide what I don’t like.

Learn to see challenges you face as obstacles to overcome rather than barriers preventing you from reaching your goal. Rather than focusing on your problems, focus on the solutions. By making this simple shift in your thinking, you will be able to become much more resilient and be able to appreciate even the difficulties you face in life.

Instead of looking at the mistakes you regret, appreciate and become grateful for the lessons you have learned from them.

Can you be fat and fit?

Can you be both fat and fit? On one hand we have plenty of statistics linking excess weight with multitude of chronic illnesses. On the other hand there are plenty of examples of  overweight people who are in good physical condition.

Physical and mental health is an interplay between various behavioral factors, genetics, social and environmental factors. Excess body fat is just one risk factor.

What does fat do?

Body fat insulates your body to help regulate core body temperature. It surrounds the body and organs to protect them from sudden movement and act as a protective cushion. It is a source of energy when your body is depleted of glucose. It helps maintain healthy skin and hair.

Why is excess fat bad?

There comes a point where increased body fat provides no function and only adds physical stress on the body. It is dead weight. It also over insulates the body (which is why fat people sweat more) and inhibits movement. It presses up against your organs causing stress. It is also associated with a lot of other behavior factors that increase the risk of disease.

What do they mean by fat?

Most studies involving obesity measure with BMI. BMI is a measurement of your weight in relation to your height. Body fat percentage is a more reliable measurement of health. Even within BF%, there are still other factors such as muscle mass and bone density which play a role. While there is a correlation between BMI and BF%, there is not a direct link. A lot of fit guys in particular are technically overweight because of their high muscle mass.  A lot of people with healthy BMIs that don’t exercise have unhealthy BF% along with having  weaker bones and less than ideal muscle mass.

What did they find?

What many of these studies indicate is that people can simultaneously be “metabolically healthy” and “overweight”. When they say “metabolically healthy” they mean they didn’t have unhealthy numbers for enough of the set of factors they quantified to be considered “metabolically unhealthy”. Basically they have not developed disease… yet. Metabolically healthy overweight people have lower risk for disease than metabolically unhealthy people who are not overweight. Metabolically healthy non-overweight have a lower risk for disease than metabolically healthy overweight people.

Metabolically Healthy vs Fit.

Being metabolically healthy is not the same thing as being fit. If health received grades, to be metabolically health you would need a C, satisfactory and passing but not necessarily ideal. To qualify as being fit you need to have more like a B+. I still think people with more than ideal body fat can still be fit, but they would most likely be healthier if they lowered their body fat to an ideal level in a healthy manner.

While excess body fat is a risk factor, it is only one form of physical stress on your body. If a person has a higher BF% but exercises regularly and eats clean foods (just more than needed) then they probably will be somewhat healthy. Certainly healthier than a skinny person that eats processed crap and doesn’t exercise.

Conclusion:

Ultimately the message is the same. Being fit is dependent on a number of factors and it isn’t  black and white. Regular strength and cardiovascular exercise is good. Eating a balanced diet full of vitamins and nutrients is good.  Your body is constantly working to achieve homeostasis (balance) and is pretty good at tolerating the crap we put it up to. The more stress we put it under either by having to much or too little of something, the harder it has to work to maintain homeostasis and the faster it burns out (illness/ death). Some people are genetically designed to better handle certain forms of stress so will react differently than the average person.

Ultimately each individual has a choice. While excess body fat is a stress on your body and a risk factor for disease, it is not an indication of their health as a whole.  If they are okay with taking some risk, then that is their own choice. If they just want to do enough to be at a low risk for disease, that is their choice. I think if a person is participating in destructive behaviors, then trying to help them is probably a good thing. But they need to make the decision on their own. I personally strive for optimal health, I want to be the best version of myself both inside and out. I like having the higher levels of endorphins and energy. I enjoy looking fit, it makes me feel good. But that is my decision. Not being fit, less fit  or taking different risks than you does not make them less worthy of a person. While it is important for people to be informed about the facts and occasionally given a little push in a different direction, ultimately everyone deserves respect. Everyone should be accepted and treated well regardless of the way they live their life.

Read more here.

Embracing Your Inner Fat Kid

Because we all have an inner fat kid.

Can we be honest here? Nobody is perfect with their diet and fitness routine. We all make mistakes. And guess what, mistakes are usually a lot of fun. Who doesn’t love to spend an entire day on the couch binge-watching Netflix and not giving a shit? Who doesn’t love the occasional gluttonous feast? And there is nothing wrong with that. We shouldn’t feel ashamed when that happens.

Part of why I am able to stay in shape is because I’ve learned to not be too hard on myself. I made a lifestyle style change. I didn’t ever go in saying I was going to always stick to the plan. I suck at that. I am messy, disorganized and show up late to everything. So why would I expect myself to pitch a perfect game? Not my style. But I eat healthy most the time. I love fruits and vegetables. I love healthy food… but, junk food is kind of delicious. I eat the occasional pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I occasionally say “fuck it” and get a soda instead of water. And I’m going to say it, I LOVE FAST FOOD! Well, I usually feel like shit after, but it’s delicious in the moment.

So you want to know the real secret to being healthy and balanced? It’s called moderation! It’s this great thing when you are healthy most of the time, but you still unleash your inner fat kid every once in a while.

And the best part is I get to I eat chocolate on a daily basis.