Body fat percentage is a hot topic. What is healthy, what’s average, what should your goal be, how much and how fast can you lose body fat, and why oh why can’t we choose where that dog gone fat comes off!
I’ve experienced a full spectrum of body fat percentages in my life. Just out of college I was at 29%. I was struggling with the college transition and my diet consisted of bagels, pasta, and pizza. Not ideal.
With some guidance and goals, I made massive progress in the gym with a trainer, and within a year I was at 21%. I was healthy and happy here. Then I started my career in fitness competitions and went to 15% for The Fitness America. I then got my pro card and competed at the top level. At my leanest, I was at 8% and my life consisted of 2-4 hours of training a day and I lived on fish and broccoli. Again…not ideal or healthy,
Looking back, I was depressed and not healthy at 29%. Not because 29% is unhealthy, but because I wasn’t eating healthy or working out like I should. At 7% I looked sick. Every vein in my body popped out and my face sunk in. I didn’t stay this low for more then a few weeks and my saving grace was that I had a crazy amount of muscle to support my body. I was also eating nutrient dense foods and working out a lot. With that said, I was at an extreme level of fitness competition and was far from healthy with this low of a body fat.
During my late mid-thirties my healthy/happy percentage was around 16%. Keep in mind that I am a fitness professional and my career and goals focus 100% on fitness.
I am just shy of 43 and I’ve noticed that I look and feel better around 18%. My face looks younger and I honestly look better at 18%. For photo or video shoots I’ll go down to 14-15%, but just for a short time.
My point being, don’t get set on an exact number! You need to know where you are as a start point and set a goal from there.
Body fat is kind of like the “One Size Fits All” thing. They never really fit everyone. These charts aren’t really “one size fits all” either. The same body fat percentage looks very different of every body. A healthy, realistic body fat percentage to shoot for is directly related to your goals. Clearly an athlete in his 20’s is going to have a different goal then someone in their 50’s. Someone that has been at 40-50% bodyfat most of their life is going to have a different goal then someone that is starting at 20-30%. The goal is to have a strong, lean, toned, and healthy body that you feel comfortable and confident in.
Let’s look at a few charts and I’ll give you a bit of insight on each.
ACE Chart: Ideal Body Fat Percentages
The chart below is from ACE, the American Council on Exercise and is one of the most commonly used body fat chart. As you can see, women have a higher bodyfat percentage relative to men. Women have more fat because of physiological differences such as hormones, breast, and sexual organs. In addition, women need a higher percentage of body fat for ovulation.
“Essential fat” is the minimum amount of fat necessary for basic physical and physiological health. There is a lot of controversy over what amount of body fat is optimal for overall health. A research paper by Gallagher et. al. in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000) came to the conclusion that certain low body fat ranges are “underfat”, which implies “unhealthy”.2 According to this research paper, men who are between 20-40 years old with under 8% body fat are considered “underfat”, whereas a “healthy” range is described as between 8-19%. For women in this same age group, any level under 21% is “underfat” and 21-33% is considered “healthy”.
In my opinion, I think body fat is one important measure of health, but stating a certain body fat level is “unhealthy” doesn’t give the whole story. In fact, some overweight people who exercise can be healthier than their leaner non-exercising counterparts.3 Conversely, to imply that anyone who has a six pack (below 8% body fat for men), is very athletic, and eats well is “underfat”, or “unhealthy” is a stretch. We all have different shapes, sizes, and fat distribution profiles, but I think the chart above is a good starting point.
The limitation of the ACE chart is that while it takes into account gender differences, it does not take into account your age, which is very important to consider.
This next chart is based on research by Jackson &Pollock. I personally prefer this chart because it takes age into consideration.
You may have noticed as your age increases, your acceptable body fat within these ranges increases as well. Older individuals tend to have a lower body density for the same skinfold measurements, which is assumed to indicate a higher body fat percentage. Older, athletic individuals, however, might not fit this assumption because their body density may be underestimated.
Digging a little deeper, there are 3 types of fat: subcutaneous (under the skin), visceral (around the organs), and intramuscular (in between muscle, like a marbled steak). The amount of subcutaneous body fat you have may stay the same, but the visceral and intramuscular fat may increase as you age.
The bottom line is that you need to set a realistic goal, tackle a few percentages at a time and find a percentage that is comfortable and healthy.
Here’s a general look at how different body fat percentages look. What do you think is ideal?
Exercise AC. . American Council on Exercise; 2009. ↩
Exercise AC. Ace Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise; 2009. ↩
Gallagher D, Heymsfield SB, Heo M, Jebb SA, Murgatroyd PR, Sakamoto Y. Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72(3):694-701. ↩
Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H, Graubard BI. Association of all-cause mortality with overweight and obesity using standard body mass index categories: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2013;309(1):71-82. ↩