What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

What is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

In the quest to achieve an ‘ideal body weight’ (is there really one?!), our body composition can often get forgotten about. To put this in to perspective.. would you rather be 50% fat or 50% muscle? Muscle is denser than fat meaning that it takes up less space. This means that the more muscle you have, the heavier you may be, but the leaner and more toned you will look. In this case, you must throw away the regular scales and instead take a note of your monthly body fat percentages. If you’re interested to find out more about how to measure your body fat percentage as well as the consequences of having too little or too much, then carry on reading!

fat vs muscle 5lb

 

  • Why do we need body fat?

Lean body mass consists of the weight of muscle, bone, organs and connective tissue, the rest is body fat. Body fat acts as an insulator to conserve heat, it produces energy and it acts as a cushioning to protect vital organs (& bones!). Total body fat can be broken down into STORAGE FAT: the fat underneath the skin, and ESSENTIAL BODY FAT: the amount of fat necessary to sustain life and reproductive functions (which is a higher percentage in women).

 

  • How do you measure body fat?

Percentage body fat can be measured in a number of different ways but the most common are:

  1. Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), which uses a very low voltage electric current that goes up one leg and down the other. Fat doesn’t conduct electricity very well which is how body fat percentage is measured (BIA measures the electrical resistance encountered). If the test has been carried out accurately then the range of error is +/-3%, and if not then the accuracy can vary +/-10%. Since water conducts electricity you should aim to be of a similar hydration level each time you get measured. You can get body fat scales for the home that use BIA or scales are available for use in larger Boots Stores or chemists.
  2. Skin-fold Testing, uses skin callipers to measure total body fat and is carried out by a trained professional. When done correctly, this method is more accurate than BIA.

 

  • What is a healthy body fat?

Ideal healthy body fat percentages vary considerably for men and women by age, as can be seen below:

body fat percentages

  •  What are the problems of too little body fat?

Too little body fat can lead to (amongst other things) the loss of reproductive functions (amenorrhea in girls), skeletal and cardiovascular problems, hormonal disturbances and abnormalities of the immune system.

 

  • What are the problems of too much body fat?

The problems of too much body fat are widely known about, and include the increased risk of; hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, certain cancers, high cholesterol, heart disease and cardiovascular disease.

 

  • What does excess body fat look like?

You know when you say (or hear) “Oh, I’ve only lost a pound!”, well, this is what 1lb of excess fat looks like (apple is purely for size comparison- it was a snack-size apple!!).

1 lb fat model

And this is what 5lb of excess body fat looks like!

5lb fat model

 

  • How do you reduce total body fat?

Reducing total body fat is all about having a healthy diet and exercising (miracle fat burning pills, like magic wands, unfortunately do not exist). I talk about how to achieve a healthy diet in my ‘How to get a Flat Stomach’ video which is linked below. If you’re cutting down on foods such as biscuits, sweets, crisps etc. (foods that our body simply doesn’t need), then you will be naturally cutting down on calories, which will enable your body to burn fat, instead of storing it (our bodies are the ultimate storage system!). Exercise in the form of resistance training (weights) is also extremely important – muscle burns more calories than fat which means that more muscle = faster metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories). Aerobic exercise such as running will help to burn calories but is more important for your over-all health than changing body shape (which is the role of muscle & fat mass!).

In addition to diet and exercise it is essential to get adequate sleep (at least 7 hours a night) and to manage stress levels. Stress (like alcohol) can actually make us store fat, which isn’t helpful if we’re trying to shift it!

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14 Comments

  1. July 18, 2013 / 9:15 am

    Thanks so this post, it’s so good to see how much 1lb of fat is. I joined Slimming World 4 weeks ago and was feeling bummed out that I’d only lost 4.5lbs… now I feel much better!! 🙂 Changing my diet and exercising has made me feel so much happier and fitter, it’s amazing what a month can do.
    Rosie x

    • Nics Nutrition
      July 20, 2013 / 7:59 am

      That’s fantastic!! And if you ever pick up a bag of sugar (1K is 2.2lb) then it really helps you to feel the weight loss too!! So glad you liked this post xx

  2. Helen
    July 18, 2013 / 9:38 am

    Great post and particularly interesting for me as I’m trying to lose weight. 1 1/2 stone lost so far so when I think of that in terms of that first picture of the handful of fat, that’s a lot of fat (yuck)! I’m finding your site really helpful for ideas of how to eat healthily – proper food and not the gimmicky diet foods I’ve been sucked into buying before 🙂

    • Nics Nutrition
      July 20, 2013 / 8:02 am

      Aw thank you for your lovely comment, it’s so nice to hear! Yes I believe in healthy lifestyles where nothing is banned rather than fad diets- just because as soon as you ban something you crave it more!! Keep up the great work 🙂 xx

  3. Ellie
    July 19, 2013 / 6:45 am

    Great blog Nic. Very helpful! Ellie x

    • Nics Nutrition
      July 20, 2013 / 8:03 am

      Thanks Ellie! Xx

  4. hannah
    July 31, 2013 / 10:20 am

    this was a really great read, i’ve followed you via twitter/facebook and was always impressed by your advice etc. I decided to have a read of your blog and have found it outstanding!!! – really great recipes and posts such as this – thank you!

    Love your no1 fan 😉
    hannah x

    • Nics Nutrition
      August 4, 2013 / 8:56 am

      Aw thanks Hannah, your comment means so much to me! Do let me know what else you would like to see on here – either on twitter, fb or here! Nic xx

  5. September 12, 2013 / 6:27 am

    Fantastic way to help increase perspective and people often forget how much 1lb is! Firmly support the need for a healthy rather than restrictive lifestyle and of course keeping your head in the right mindset for you 🙂

  6. Claire
    April 4, 2014 / 9:38 am

    I’ve recently lost a stone (in about 4 months) through diet and exercise. However my periods have stopped for the past two months. Now I have a healthy BMI and I know my BF% isn’t below what it should be. I will be consulting my doctor about this next week, but I was just wondering if you could possibly shed some light on this in the mean time.

    • April 4, 2014 / 5:41 pm

      It’s hard to say Claire but a trip to the doctors sounds good. It could be due to hormone changes. Good luck x

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