Most of us have been taught to believe that health is determined by visible body fat and weight. Actually, “looking fat” and the number on the scale are poor determinants of health. This blog post tells you the truth about body fat, body mass index (BMI), body composition, and how to find your body fat percentage.
Only you can determine what health means to you! Educate yourself so that you can be your best self, naturally.
Table of contents
What does Body Composition mean?
In short, body composition measures body fat to lean tissue in the body.
More thoroughly, body composition refers to the proportion of fat you have relative to the lean tissue in your body (muscles, bones, water stored in the body, organs, etcetera).(1)
Not The Same As Body Mass Index
For decades, Body Mass Index, or BMI, was THE go-to health analysis. But today’s scientists recognize BMI as a flawed system for determining well-being. According to the Center for Disease Control, BMI mislabels people as “overweight” because they have a high BMI when they’re relatively healthy. That’s because BMI analyzes only one’s weight and height. Someone short or very muscular is likely to be considered “fat” (muscle weighs more than fat). Being short or strong does NOT mean you’re unhealthy! Quite the contrary. Body mass composition was created to rectify BMI by measuring fat-free mass and body fat mass separately from BMI.(2)
The Truth About Body Fat
Body fat and the macronutrient of fat are NOT the same! The clinical term for body fat is adipose tissue. Adipose tissue is imperative to the body’s metabolism, safety, and general functioning. Fat protects organs and bones, provides energy, balances appetite, and serves a vital role in overall cellular metabolization. Without fat, our body would never find homeostasis (physical equilibrium).(3, 4)
Scientists recognize two kinds of adipose tissue: white cells and brown cells. White cells store energy for use in other organs. Brown tissue accumulates over time and regulates internal heat (called cold-induced adaptive thermogenesis). White cells store energy while brown cells dissipate it!(5)
Fat Doesn’t Always Look Fat
Measuring one’s body composition also hints at where fat is stored in the body. Have you ever heard the term “skinny fat?” It refers to how someone can have lots of body fat and still have a thin frame. “Skinny fat” can occur for a few reasons.
The person has few muscles, so visible mass and measurable weight are composed of fat, connective tissues, organs, and bones. The person may be genetically predisposed to store fat deeper in the body, closer to bones and muscles. The person’s lifestyle may not promote healthy organs, so the fat in the body moves toward organs to assist with metabolization at the site and to support the organs. For instance, alcoholics have a great deal of fat around the liver. Or people with kyphosis (upper back curvature) whose thoracic spine is coated with protective fat.
It is rarely appropriate or necessary to comment about someone’s body! Instead, focus on their character and your relationship.
Fat deep in the body and near the organs is called visceral adiposity and is the most dangerous kind of fat because it threatens the movement of fluids around organs and through veins(6). In this way, someone who “looks fat” because they naturally store fat nearer to the skin may be healthier than someone who “looks skinny” but has visceral adiposity.(7)
Health and fitness are so much more than the way you look. Genetics plays a significant role in the form the body assumes. Health happens below the surface of the skin. Only science and your sensations can tell you how to be healthy and when you’re there. Stop comparing yourself to others on Instagram! Education and self-awareness are the tickets to health.
Is Fat Bad?
Fat is not bad. On the contrary, it is necessary for our body’s basic functions. And the “low-fat” diets of the 1990’s ruined popular culture’s perception of the value of fat. They made people believe that being skinnier is better.
Being low body fat composition and/or very low body density carries risks, just as being overweight or obese. Data shows that underweight children are more susceptible to infection than overweight children. In adults, being overweight and underweight presents an equal risk of infection. And the mortality rate for critically ill patients is higher in obese adults than in underweight adults.(8)
Being underweight and being overweight is dangerous. Seek a healthy middle!
Furthermore, having a high body fat percentage isn’t intrinsically dangerous. It’s fat storage and insulin regulation that matters. Obesity and being overweight are an enlargement of adipose tissue to store excess energy intake(9). Simply having extra fatty tissue is not dangerous, as long as it’s stored in healthy fat cells responsive to insulin. It’s when cells stop becoming responsive to insulin that problems arise. Obesity can lead to diabetes because excess adipose tissue affects insulin sensitivity.(10, 11) The thing is, it’s not the fat itself that affects insulin responsiveness, but genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle.
Having a low body fat percentage reaps many physical and emotional problems. For women, Amenorrhea can occur (loss of a period and subsequent hormonal issues). Men and women can both suffer from lower cognitive function. The brain is 60% fat, so when the body is malnourished, the body will start using fat from the brain to fuel its daily activities.(12, 13) The same goes for muscles: without enough body fat, the body will take nutrients from muscles. When muscles become smaller, they stop releasing necessary hormones, resulting in depression and fatigue. Plus, low muscle mass leads to low bone mass, meaning a higher risk of osteoporosis and injury.
Ultimately, body composition is not intended to reveal body fat. It describes the ratio of fat to other parts of the body and helps one understand what’s happening below the surface of their health. It’s an educational tool.
Why Muscles Matter
Strong muscle helps to reduce the risk of injury, support a healthy lifestyle, and promote longevity. However, muscles naturally become less tough with aging. The National Institute of Health concluded in a study that muscle strength declines in people aged <40 years to those >40 years between 16.6% and 40.9%. The risk of falling and breaking bones increases as a result of reduced muscle strength and bone loss over the age of 40. A sedentary lifestyle accelerates this process. The body fat percentage also rises due to a redistribution of stored body fat, which heightens the risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes.
How Is Body Composition Calculated?
Body composition is used less frequently than body mass index or body fat percentage because only trained professionals can provide a reliable assessment. They do so in one of two ways.
1. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)
Bioelectrical impedance (BIA) is one of the most precise and reliable methods to determine body composition. This method measures the opposition to the flow of electrical current through body tissue. A weak electrical field is created through two electrodes on a hand and foot. Don’t worry – it doesn’t hurt! BIA is the preferred measurement method in medicine and sports medicine because it is so fast and easy to do. If you want to find out whether your body fat percentage is healthy, ask a dietician.
The following parameters can be determined with BIA:
Body fatLean body massTotal body waterMuscle mass
2. Hydrostatic weighing
Hydrostatic weighing makes its calculation based on water displacement. Weight is compared outside of water and in water to calculate density and thus the body composition. If you’re interested in this method, you’ll need to find a location in your area that provides this method — usually a medical facility.
Finding Your Body Fat Percentage
If you’re unable to learn your body composition, you can use body fat percentage to start making educated decisions about nutrition and exercise. The easiest way to calculate your body fat percentage is with our online calculator:
There are two other ways to find your body fat percentage.
How to Calculate Your Body Fat Percentage at Home
There are also ways to calculate your body fat percentage at home. These are less accurate than the methods above. But, they can give you a general idea of your current levels.
1. Skin Calipers
This is done by pinching 3 different skin folds in the body — the measurements of your body fat percentage can be read directly on the tool. It’s the easiest to do at home with a friend or with your trainer. However, this method isn’t generally efficient for obese people and can have a large margin of error if being done by different professionals. If you are using this method, be sure to have the same person do it for you to ensure a more accurate comparison. It’s not the most precise of all the methods but doesn’t take much time at all. The advantage is that it’s a quick way to measure.
2. US Navy Method
If you want to calculate your body fat percentage using the US Navy Method, all you need is a measuring tape to measure different parts of your body. The points at which you measure are different for men and women.
How to measure correctly:
Waist circumference: wrap the measuring tape around your waist at the height of your navel. Measure when you are relaxed after exhaling.Neck circumference: measure your neck just below the Adam’s apple. Hip circumference (only for women): measure at the widest part of your hips.
What Is A Healthy Body Composition?
It’s one thing to know the number. It’s another to understand it. Most major medical practitioners recognize the following percentage ranges.
Women’s Body Fat Percentage
Men’s Body Fat Percentage
Women can, and should, have a higher body fat percentage than men!
Body Composition As A Measure of Health
Instead of focusing on what’s to be cut or lost, focus on what you can add and gain. Muscle is so much more important to health than fat. Having more muscle will naturally lead to a higher metabolism and lower body fat percentage. Instead of cutting calories to lose weight, focus on adding strength training to gain muscle. Instead of trying to become less, try to become more!
Body recomposition is the process of changing the ratio of fat, lean muscle, and other tissue mass in the body. It refers to increasing muscle and skeletal mass while decreasing fat mass.(14) Read on for “body recomp” tips.
How To Change Your Body Composition
If you determine that your body fat percentage is outside the healthy range and you don’t feel as energized as you’d like, you can change your nutrition and exercise to build more muscle and reduce fat.
Begin by calculating baseline data about yourself. After learning your starting body composition, use the following calculator to find out your natural energy expenditures (i.e., calories burned):
Since relaxation and sleep are an essential part of muscle protein synthesis, use this sleep calculator, too:
Then, you’ll be ready to make some profound changes!
Monitor Calorie and Nutritional Intake
Monitoring one’s caloric intake is NOT dieting. It IS knowing that eating excess calories will cause the body to convert nutrition into fat, which can eventually lead to disease over time.(15)
The most important intake to monitor is protein. Studies suggest that eating more protein every day can lead to natural body recomposition.(16) Make the most of your protein intake by eating higher protein within three hours of sport (or sooner).(17) Whey protein has been shown to increase body recomposition when eaten alongside aerobic training(18). Low carbohydrate diets help women lower their body fat and sleep better.(19)
When attempting body recomposition, it’s imperative to find a balance between undereating and overeating. If you undereat, the stress hormone leptin will increase. Leptin is very sensitive to intake. If stimulated over long periods, it can cause neurological disorders and higher energy storage.(20) Furthermore, if you eat too few calories or cut out carbohydrates, any weight you lose will likely be muscle and water weight. You will lose weight, but your body fat percentage will be higher. And that’s not healthy!(21)
Once you get your initial calculations, stop weighing yourself! Body composition is not about weight but muscle-to-fat ratio. Weight is a poor health marker; it’s just one data point!
In fact, you might find that you need to GAIN body fat and weight. That’s perfectly normal (especially in today’s weight-obsessed society). Gaining weight is equally as important as losing weight. Gaining weight should be done just as carefully as losing it.
Bulking and Refeeding
Many professional athletes purposefully “bulk” before the competition. Bulking adds more calories than one’s average daily expenditure to load the body with extra nutrition. Then, the athlete focuses on strength training, thereby directing excess nutrition into the muscles. Bulking is a great way to build muscle mass for a short time, after which a regular calorie intake resumes.
Refeeding refers to gaining weight after being underweight or malnourished. It can be dangerous, as getting too many calories too fast can result in refeeding syndrome.(22) If you’re mildly underweight, it is safe to add more calories into your diet over time gently. Like weight loss, a good rule of thumb for weight gain is ~1 pound per week. Check out our blog post for fun recipes for eating inspiration!
Whether gaining or losing weight, changing your weight by 1 pound per week is a generally safe and effective goal!
Exercise for Body Recomposition
In addition to dietary alterations, certain types of exercise promote body recomposition. When trying to gain muscle and lose fat, there are three workouts that are proven to benefit most people.
HIIT: high-intensity interval training is proven to recompose muscles and fat with 12 weeks of regular workouts.(23) The thing about HIIT is that you must push yourself to your limits. Since your limits aren’t the same as other people’s, you’ve got to be honest with yourself, hold yourself accountable, and choose appropriate exercises. Here are some HIIT exercise ideas!Resistance Training: resistance training refers to lifting weights and using resistance bands. But, it can also apply bodyweight exercises, especially if you’re new to working out. These workouts can be done slowly with many repetitions and movements. You can also target specific muscle groups for easy-to-see gains!Low-intensity cardio: long walks, casual hikes, bike rides with friends, and swimming are all examples. These types of exercises cleanse, regenerate, and oxygenate new muscles. And these lower-intensity cardio movements are less likely to make you very hungry, helping to maintain your nutritional intake goals.
Try to mix in every one of these exercise styles in a week. Plan to exercise 3-5 times a week with adequate rest. Add variety, but focus on building muscle. Here’s an example of a training split that will help with body recomposition when paired with a high-protein diet:
Monday: short and intense HIIT workoutTuesday: strength training (with or without weights)Wednesday: rest dayThursday: easy jogFriday: sports game with friendsSaturday: rest daySunday: strength training (with or without weights)
Are you looking for more ways to train at home and outdoors? Download the adidas Training app!
Aim For a Healthy Middle
Body fat is essential for our health. It provides energy, protects and insulates our organs, and regulates the production of hormones. Too much body fat is associated with higher cholesterol and blood pressure, both of which can lead to cardiovascular problems and strokes. The risk of Type 2 diabetes is also higher. However, if your body fat is too low, you lack energy, are more likely to get sick, and get cold faster. You may suffer from digestive problems, and low body fat can have a negative impact on your bone density and hormone level. The healthiest route is to aim for the middle of the range.
Ultimately, if you feel healthy, you’re probably healthy. And if your blood tests come back positive, regardless of your weight, you’re probably healthy. There are many ways to determine “good” health. Because body composition is the most multi-faceted, it is generally regarded as the best.(26)
Before starting a new exercise routine or diet, you might first ask yourself: do I feel good? Do I enjoy my workouts? Does my doctor deem me healthy? And if these questions are YES, but you still feel unsure of yourself, you might consider working on your body image. This blog post can help!