We all know about fat. Fat is bad, right? We need to lose it to be fit and healthy. Well, not quite. In fact, fat (in the right amount) is essential for leading a healthy life. The problem lies in having too much or too little. That’s where body fat percentage comes in. So what is the truth about body fat, how can we calculate it, and what does it have to do with living healthy? Read on to find out.
What is body fat percentage and why is it important?
To understand why body fat percentage is important, we first need to understand what it is. Our bodies are composed of many different components — muscles, bones, body water, organs, and of course, fat.
Fat percentage is the ratio of fat in relation to those other components.
Now, although fat gets a bad reputation, it is essential for many of our body functions. It helps maintain life and reproductive functions, and the accumulation of adipose tissue from stored fat helps cushion and protect the organs in your chest and abdomen. So having accumulated fat is important, but like everything in life, you need to maintain a balance. That’s why calculating body fat percentage is so important in identifying your health — having a body fat percentage that is too high or too low can indicate certain health risks.
How do we calculate body fat percentage?
There are several methods to calculate this. Here are some of the most common:
- Calipers — It’s based on the idea that about 50% of total body fat lies under that skin, and involves measuring the thickness of skinfolds at standardized sizes. It is also known as the Skinfold Method
- Body Mass Index (BMI) — This is a value derived from the weight and height of a person; a simple numeric measure of a person’s thinness and thickness. Having a numeric value allows health professionals to discuss weight problems more objectively with their patients. Read here, why BMI is not an adequate measure to record fitness.
- Dual x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) — Uses X-rays to scan and measure whole-body bone mass and soft tissue composition, and is the preferred method for identifying bone and body composition
- Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) — Uses an imperceptible electrical current to measure body composition. Body fat (adipose tissue) causes greater resistance and slows the rate at which the current travels through the body
- Hydrostatic Weighing — an underwater weighing method based on on the Archimedes Principle. A person weighs themselves on land and underwater. The difference between the two values can help determine body density and fat percentage. Though this is considered one of the most accurate measurement methods, it requires a lot of resources and space and is therefore not the most feasible
- US Department of Defence Method — Calculates body fat by using a person’s height as a constant and girth of neck and abdominal for male and neck, hip and waist for females
What does your body fat percentage tell you about your health?
Using any of the above methods can give you an idea of your body fat percentage, but the number alone doesn’t tell you much unless you know how to interpret it. Here’s what body fat percentage means according to the American Council on Exercise
As you can see, the values differ for men and women, and there are further differences if you break these groups down by age. You may have noticed the term ‘essential fat’. This refers to the fat present in bone marrow, nerve tissues, and organs, and can’t be lost without compromising physiological functions. The chart above shows that women need to have higher essential fat percentages, as these fats are very important in maintaining hormonal balance and aiding and protecting the reproductive organs.
How and when do these values help?
These numbers are useful in determining whether a person is underweight, at a normal weight, overweight, or obese, which can have a direct link to their health. Higher body fat percentage, for example, is linked to a myriad of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, insulin insensitivity, diabetes mellitus, and even certain types of cancer. If your body fat percentage is too low on the other hand, you’re at risk for anaemia, malnutrition, osteoporosis, low immunity, and, if you’re a woman, fertility issues. Knowing your body fat percentage can also give you an idea of how fit you are and what you need to do to work towards your fitness goals.
How to reduce body fat percentage:
You can reduce your body fat percentage by reducing your overall weight. There are many ways to do this in a healthy way — without going on a hunger strike! Try the following tactics:
- Caloric deficit — consume fewer calories than you burn. Everything you eat is converted into fuel for your daily activities. When you consume more calories than you can burn, it’s stored as excess fat. You can prevent this with a caloric deficit of about 10-20%. Of course, this doesn’t mean you cut out all high-calorie foods from your diet. Remember that your body needs calories for day-to-day functions like muscle repair and sustained energy. You want to make sure you have the right kind of nutrients — proteins, carbs, and even fats — in your diet to stay functioning throughout the day!
- Exercise — focus on cardiovascular and resistance training. A low-calorie diet alone isn’t enough to reduce weight, it needs to be complemented by the right workout. Cardiovascular and resistance exercises are great for this because they help build and maintain lean muscle mass — which in turn reduces body fat. Weight training is particularly important in your fat loss journey because, when done properly, it creates a greater caloric expenditure than steady-state cardio. And don’t forget consistency is key in maintaining both muscle gain and weight loss.
- Lose fat, not muscle — weight loss doesn’t necessarily mean loss of fat. Losing weight signifies a loss in total body mass, but this doesn’t mean you’re reducing your stored fat. Loss of lean muscle mass or less water retention can also result in weight loss. Keep in mind that you can only lose body fat by following a caloric deficit and a good training program. In fact, research shows that fat loss without sacrificing muscle is more effective when caloric deficit is achieved through training. Keep track of the calories you consume and the activities you do and find the right balance between the two. If you find your caloric intake is high and your activity level is low, look into increasing the level and frequency of the workouts. If you feel like you’re doing the right amount of exercise but are still taking in too many calories, it may be time to make some dietary changes. Choose wisely to make sure you’re not losing valuable muscle mass instead!
Some myths about fat loss
There’s a lot of misinformation out there about fats and fat loss which can cloud your understanding of how to maintain a healthy body fat percentage. So let’s take a second to clear the air.
- Fat can convert to muscle and vice versa
Fat and muscle are different kinds of body tissues — one cannot turn into the other. When you exercise with a caloric deficit, the extra fat that is stored in the body is used for energy. You burn fat and build muscle. When you stop exercising, muscle doesn’t turn into fat, instead, it starts to atrophy and also slows down your metabolism.
- You can reduce fat from a specific part of the body
The idea of spot reduction is one of the biggest weight loss myths out there. Whether you’re looking at excess fat around the belly or the arms, it is not possible to reduce the fat in one specific area. You need to work on overall fitness levels and fat loss to achieve that.
- Doing only cardio will help you lose fat
Cardio definitely helps burn calories, but only while you’re exercising. Resistance and weight training on the other hand cause wear and tear in your muscles which your body will need to expend calories to repair. That means it burns calories even after your workout. An ideal combination of both will aid in fat loss and avoid loss of lean muscle mass. Resistance training is also better at burning through stored fat. Although a 20-30 minute cardio session will make you sweat, doing a more intensive or longer resistance training will use fat as the energy source rather than the glycogen storage.
- Crash Diets will help
To lose weight or fat sustainably, you have to create habits, Sustainable weight loss or fat loss requires creating habits — nutrition, workout, or lifestyle. While crash diets where you consume very low caloric meals may show quick results in the short term, they can in fact result in weight gain and muscle loss in the long term. Furthermore, fasting and diets are only safe when done under professional guidance.
- Very low body fat % is good
A body fat percentage significantly below the recommended range can be fatal. Once the range reaches the essential fat level or lower, it could hamper the body’s physiological functions. It also depends on gender, age, exercise levels, and genetics. Some athletes, such as professional bodybuilders, may be recommended to have a low body fat percentage, but this is only for a very short time, usually for competitions.
- You need to avoid foods containing fats for effective fat loss
Foods rich in fat are not necessarily evil. In fact, fats(good fats) are essential nutrients and should be part of a healthy nutrition plan. But because fats contain more calories per gram as compared to protein or carbohydrates, you need to keep an eye on how much you are consuming.
To sum it up
Body fat alone is not an indicator of health, although it is a main component. A person’s lifestyle, metabolism, and workout regime are other indicators that can provide a more holistic view of their health. That being said, body fat percentage is an easily quantifiable metric that can give you a good idea of what it will take to achieve your fitness goals. If nothing else, it’s a friendly benchmark for your weight loss journey!