Have you ever got a body fat test and freaked out over the result? Have you ever been upset by the category the test placed you in? Have you ever been called average or obese? The answer is you probably have. I know I have.

Let’s have a discussion about body fat percentage and testing results.

We need to discuss what a healthy body fat percentage is but first we need to make sure our test results are accurate. The most accurate tests are the Hydrostatic Dunk Tank and The Dexa Scan.  These are really the only two ways to accurately calculate body fat percentage.  There are other methods of testing body fat like the skin fold test (where you use calipers to pinch certain areas of the body) and bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) (where you hold a device with your hands and it sends electrical signals through your body) but neither is a great option. These last two ways are the cheapest and most accessible to use but they are not very accurate.  Most people use these tools to track fat gain and loss instead of using these numbers as an accurate representation of body composition.

Now that we have are sure we have accurate test results let’s get back on track and examine what the results of the test mean and what a healthy body fat percentage is. When you get tested most places will give you your results along with a chart giving you various information like the “categories” you fall into. On your report you will see things like: “Essential fat”, “Athletes”, “Fitness”, “Average”, and “Obese”.  What is essential fat? This is fat you have to have on your body to stay alive.  This is non-negotiable. You need it to survive. Think of essential body fat like a base layer, and it is the same for everyone.  Every cell in your body is wrapped in a phospholipid bilayer.  Your heart, lungs, bone marrow, liver, kidneys, intestines, central nervous system and all your muscles require a certain level of body fat to function.  One thing you will notice on these charts is that there is a category for men and one for women.  You will notice that women’s numbers are higher.  Why?  Women have what we call “sex specific” fat which is held in the uterus and breast tissue.  Women also have fat driven hormones which will begin to shift out of balance without proper body fat percentage (this is why some women lose their period when they get too low in body fat). So numbers normally range 10-13% for women and 2-5% for men.  The next category is “Athletes”. Numbers range from 6-13% for men and 14-20% for women.  Some women see these numbers and think that if they are closer to the 14% mark then that must mean they are “more” of an athlete. This couldn’t be further from the truth. No two athletes are the same. These numbers are there as a vague guideline and must cover all types of athletes.  Types include, powerlifters, marathon runners, ballerinas, rock climbers, CrossFit athletes, swimmers, etc.  There are certain sports that require lighter bodyweight like ballerinas who need to be lifted into the air and look a certain way, rock climbers who need to hold their bodies up on the side of a mountain, or marathon runners who can lessen the damage on their joints if they are lighter in weight.  On the other hand there are sports like powerlifting, CrossFit, and swimming where it helps the athlete to be strong, forceful and powerful.  These athletes do not need to be at the lower end of the body fat percentage because it does not help their performance.  In fact, it may hurt their performance.  “Fitness” is considered to be 14-17% for men and 21%-24% for women.  What does fitness mean?  This is where things can get really convoluted. What is the definition of fitness? Fit for what? Fit compared to who? Do you know the answers to these questions? Then we have the “average” category which is 18-24% for men and 25-31% for women.  The word “average” has a negative connotation to it.  No one wants to be average or think of themselves as average so this number scares people into thinking that it’s a bad range to fall into. Not true. With all these definitions and possible confusion, I would like to explain body fat percentage in a bit of a different way.

Average baseline for human life is 4% body fat and any additional weight loss will come from lean body mass.  This rule does apply to women but women do need a certain percent of sex specific body fat which is about an additional 5%.  This 5% plays an important role for healthy menstrual function.  When a woman’s body fat drops too low she will begin to show signs of secondary amenorrhea which results in irregular ovulation cycles or complete disappearance of the menstrual cycle.  Over time this can lead to permanent infertility and bone loss.  So beyond the 4% essential body fat and 5% sex specific body fat this leaves us with what we can manipulate or what we call expendable storage.  For a healthy individual this on average is about 15%.  Add this together and it gives us 19% for men and 24% for women.  Because not everyone can be put into one category, it was broken into “athletes, fitness, average and obese”.  Obese is considered 25+% for men and 32+% for women and I personally know individuals who sit around 32% and are furthest thing from obese.  There is a lot of individual variance.

With all these individual variances and different categories it is difficult to ascertain where you need to be. If a happy body is 24% for you then maybe going down to 16% isn’t the right thing for your body or for your performance. Every woman is different. Some women lose their period at 19% body fat while other women can get down to 10% and still have normal menstrual function.  A low body fat percentage is not a badge of honor; it is something to consider if you are trying to calculate your health but listen to your body.  If you are having problems sleeping, recovering from your workouts or having trouble with energy levels during the day you may be too low in body fat regardless of what the results say. You might want to look into testing your body fat and seeing if raising it a little helps these issues.  Same goes for women who are having fertility issues. Knowing a little bit more about your body fat levels is important to you.  Even if you never get tested if your period is irregular or nonexistent that may be a sign your body fat might be too low.  The reason I am telling you all this is that people get upset by body fat test results. I have been one of those people. I have been one of those people who have lost my period. I have been one of those people who obsessed over the numbers. Don’t be that person. Sometimes having a little extra body fat is good. Don’t be a slave to the numbers. Sometimes when it comes to improving your health and wellness, bringing your body fat up might be the only intervention you need. Screw what the numbers and “categories” say.