Diet & Weight Magazine

What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

By Dietdoctor @DietDoctor1

When measuring your overall health, just stepping on a scale doesn't tell the full story.
While a body weight scale will reveal your total mass or weight, it can't tell you if that weight is healthy. To better understand your body - and what it's made of - the key is to know your body composition and body fat percentage.

In this guide, we'll take a closer look at body fat percentage. You'll learn why it's important to know your percentage, which ranges are considered ideal for men and women, how to lower your percentage, how to measure it, and more.

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know.

The following represents an estimate of the ranges for healthy levels of body fat percentage. We acknowledge that the data supporting these exact levels are weak as they are mostly derived from body mass index. However, the numbers provide a helpful framework to understand body fat percentage and risk.

Get your personalized meal plan with a FREE 30-day trial!

Why knowing your body fat percentage is important

What is a healthy body fat percentage?

Your overall body composition tells you how much of your weight is made up of fat mass and fat-free mass. Fat-free mass is a combination of muscle, bone, organs, and water.

More specifically, your body fat percentage tells how much of your overall bodyweight comes from fat. Knowing this measurement is important for several reasons.

First, when you lose weight, you want to lose mostly fat and keep most of your lean mass - so your body fat percentage should decrease.

Second, some people may be "normal-weight obese." This means their overall weight is in the healthy range, but their body fat percentage is elevated - something they will never find out from a standard scale. Studies show that a "normal-weight obesity" pattern quadruples your risk for metabolic syndrome and doubles your risk for heart disease.

Third, both a higher body fat percentage and lower lean muscle mass are independent risk factors for metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and even dying prematurely. So, you'll be healthier with a lower body fat percentage (to a degree - keep reading for more information).

What should my body fat percentage be?

It's difficult to define the best body fat percentage for you. The best we can do is estimate a range for ideal body fat percentage; this will vary by age, gender, and ethnicity. It should be noted that most of the data comes from relating body fat percentage to BMI, which may weaken the strength of the data.

The average 50-year-old man should aim for a body fat percentage around 8 to 15%, and the average woman should target 15 to 25%. But that doesn't mean you have to get to the lower end of that range to improve your health.

Not at all.

Experts define obesity as 25% body fat for men and 35% for women. So one important step is to make sure you get below those levels.

Don't let a perceived "goal" of 15% for men and 25% for women become discouraging if you struggle to achieve it. If you're reducing your body fat percentage and are below 25% for men and 35% for women, you're likely improving your health even if you aren't at "ideal" levels.

There's a lower limit to a healthy body fat percentage, too. There is such a thing as essential fat, and going below 8% for men or 15% for women can cause its own set of health issues.

What are the different types of body fat?

Not all body fat is the same. You need some body fat for temperature insulation, protecting your organs, and as a fuel reserve. It's important to make sure you have the right kind of body fat, and not too much or too little of it.

There are three main types of body fat:

  • Essential fat: As the name implies, this type of fat is essential for our everyday functioning. You find essential fat in your brain, bone marrow, and cell membranes.
  • Subcutaneous fat: This is the fat found under your skin and is usually located along hips and thighs. Studies show that this type of fat isn't usually associated with poor health.
  • Visceral fat: This type of fat is found in your abdomen or belly and around your internal organs. Visceral fat is the most concerning type of fat. Higher amounts are associated with an increased risk of multiple health issues, including metabolic syndrome, inflammation, heart disease, and even premature death.

A healthy weight loss program will reduce visceral or abdominal fat first, as this will likely lead to the most improvements in metabolic health. While you can't simply decide which type of weight you want to lose, you can choose lifestyle habits that make you more likely to lose fat mass.

How do I lower my body fat percentage?

You can lower your body fat percentage by either decreasing your body fat or increasing your lean mass. Ideally, you would do both!

Specific dietary interventions to lower your body fat include low-carb eating, lowering calorie intake, and intermittent fasting.

Higher-protein diets and resistance training are two of the best methods for increasing lean mass. And high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an efficient way to exercise to decrease fat mass.

Since each of these interventions has beneficial effects on its own, it makes sense that combining them - a low-carb, higher-protein diet with strategic intermittent fasting and a regular exercise program that includes resistance training and HIIT - may be the most effective approach. However, research on this combination is sparse.

You can read more about improving your body composition in our detailed guides on body composition or how to lose belly fat. And you can get started on a healthy exercise program in our Let's Get Moving course.

What Healthy Body Percentage?
What is a healthy body fat percentage?

Get your personalized meal plan with a FREE 30-day trial!

What's your main health goal?

How do I measure my body fat percentage?

There are multiple ways to measure your body fat percentage. As you've already learned, the standard scale is not one of them!

Instead of a regular scale, you can use an at-home bioimpedance scale. Bioimpedance scales are easy to find, although they aren't as accurate as other measurements.

DEXA is the best method for measuring subcutaneous and abdominal or visceral fat (see more on this below). This method may not be ideal for frequent (less than 6 months) follow-ups because it can be expensive and exposes users to a small amount of radiation.

Water (hydrostatic weight) and air displacement methods (such as the Bodpod) are accurate measurements without radiation, so you can check them more often if you wish.

Skinfold testing is a low-tech method, although it is less reproducible and less effective at telling the difference between abdominal and subcutaneous fat.

For a more detailed look at the various methods of measuring body fat, check out our guide on how to improve and measure your body composition.

How often should I measure my body fat percentage?

There is no absolute answer to how often you should check your body fat percentage, but there are a few things you need to consider:

  • What is the cost of the test?
  • Is there any radiation involved?
  • Has there been enough time for my lifestyle efforts to take effect?

You should start with a baseline measurement prior to starting a new diet or lifestyle intervention. Then, you may want to wait at least four weeks to see if your changes have had a meaningful impact on your body fat percentage. Your results are likely to become more apparent as more time passes.

If you're checking DEXA scans, you may want to wait four to six months between tests given the small amount of radiation involved.

Know your composition

Knowing your body fat percentage is an important factor in assessing your overall health and progress with healthy weight loss.

Losing weight in a healthy way means losing body fat while maintaining or building your lean mass. A regular scale or BMI calculation doesn't track this crucial information.

That's why we recommend you get a baseline measurement and periodically check your body composition and body fat percentage.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog