Body Fat Percentage: How Much Body Fat Is Ideal?
Body fat is a natural and necessary element for the body, its quantity and distribution depend on many factors, such as sex, age, race, genetics, and diet. It is common for companies to promote their products using ripped and shredded athletes, who are likely preparing for a bodybuilding competition. But, are these levels of body fat ideal? Or even healthy? Let’s explore…
What is the ideal percentage of body fat?
When it comes to body fat percentage, it refers to the ideal amount of fat the body should have based on sex, genetics, and age. For men, the range between 16 and 20% is considered normal, while for women the range is broader, and maybe between 20 and 24%.
These percentages also depend directly on the level of average physical activity. The percentage of body fat in athletes may be lower, while in sedentary people fat percentages are higher.
Essential functions of fat in the body
Fat performs many essential functions in the body, including:
- Natural temperature regulator.
- It works as a protective layer for soft organs such as the intestines.
- It plays an important role in the immune system, regulating the cellular response.
- Adipocytes are capable of synthesizing hormones that intervene in various metabolic processes. (1)
How to calculate body fat percentage?
Body fat percentage can be quantified by nutritionists and sports trainers, and even yourself, by using specialized scales (bioimpedance) that work through the densities and can specify the percentage of fat mass, visceral fat, mass lean, bone mass, water, and other body composition data (2). People commonly ask how accurate are these bioimpedance scales? With many of these scales less than $40 (here is a popular scale on Amazon) – this is a very legitimate question. Upon digging further into this question, you will likely find many making the claim that “they may not be perfectly accurate, but at least they are convenient.” While there IS something to be said about the convenience of these, some machines are better than others. The verdict? They might be a tool to roughly help analyze your body fat, but at the end of the day they are not the most accurate tool to measure body fat.
Skin Fold (Pinch Test)
For this method the help of a professional is necessary: it is a matter of measuring 7 skin folds with the use of a caliper, the values of these measurements are entered into a mathematical formula and the results are compared with a standard table of values. There are currently online calculators that make calculating easy.
This method is considered one of the most accurate when it comes to measuring fat percentage, however, it does not provide data such as bone mass or visceral fat ratio. (3)
The folds to measure are:
- Bicipital fold
- Abdominal fold
- Quad fold
- Peroneal fold
- Subscapular fold
- Tricipital fold
- Suprailiac fold
This is the preferred method from a lot of pros, but it is not as discrete as an at home solution. Your measurement professional will literally be pinching your body fat and measuring it. While this may be uncomfortable for many, it does provide a pretty good gauge on your body fat percentage.
A DEXA Scan is an x-ray technology that was developed to measure bone density but has become the gold standard in body fat analysis due to claims of being more accurate than other methods. While these machines used to be exclusive to hospitals and universities, they are becoming more and more available for the general public. Just do a quick google search for “dexa scan near me” to see if there is a facility that offers body fat scanning in your city!
Recommended percentage of body fat according to sex:
Male body fat percentage
Years Good Medium High
% % %
20-24 14.9 19.0 23.3
25-29 16.5 20.3 24.3
30-34 18.0 21.5 25.2
35-39 19.3 22.6 26.1
40-44 20.5 23.6 26.9
45-49 21.5 24.5 27.6
50-59 22.7 25.6 28.7
> 60 23.3 26.2 29.3
Female body fat percentage
Years Good Medium High
% % %
20-24 22.1 25.0 29.6
25-29 22.0 25.4 29.8
30-34 22.7 26.4 30.5
35-39 24.0 27.7 31.5
40-44 25.6 29.3 32.8
45-49 27.3 30.9 34.1
50-59 29.7 33.1 36.2
> 60 30.7 34.0 37.3
Consequences of a low percentage of fat
When the body fat percentage is below the minimum required, the body can develop autoimmune diseases or recurrent infections due to the role of fat tissue in the immune system, there can also be difficulties in regulating body temperature due to lack of energy.
Consequences of a high percentage of fat
High body fat levels represent a health problem. The accumulated fat acts as a long-term pro-inflammatory agent that can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes. High-fat levels are closely related to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases due to the accumulation of lipid plaques in the arterial vessels. (4)
Is abdominal fat really bad?
The fat accumulated at the abdominal level is visceral fat, it is responsible not only for the most notorious evidence of overweight and obesity, but it is also a determining parameter when establishing risks for the development of many endocrine metabolic diseases.
Studies have revealed that visceral fat has a proinflammatory behavior because it stimulates the release of cytokines and at the same time releases harmful fatty acids into the bloodstream associated with high cholesterol levels and atherosclerosis. (5)
A parameter used to estimate the proportion of abdominal fat is to use the measurement of the abdominal circumference. A tape measure is used to measure the abdominal circumference at the waist level.
Assessment: in women, a normal abdominal circumference is up to 87 cm, while in men it is up to 102 cm, the highest figures increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Distribution of body fat according to sex
The distribution of fat in the body obeys a hormonal pattern, that is why in women, due to the effects of estrogens, it accumulates at the level of the breasts, thighs, buttocks, and hips, while in men due to The action of male hormones, fat is usually located at the central or abdominal level, with little presence of fat on the buttocks and thighs.
What is the body mass index and what is it for?
The body mass index (BMI) was used for many years to establish healthy or unhealthy nutritional ranges, using the relationship between the person's weight and height. Currently, it is still useful to establish general parameters about a healthy weight or not, but it does not provide complete information on the percentage of body fat, therefore, it is possible that you can have a normal BMI and have an inadequate percentage of body fat. (6)
Nutritional assessment according to BMI
BMI (kg / m²)
Low weight: Less than 18.0
Normal: 18.0 -24.5
Overweight: More than 25.00
Obesity: More than 30.00
How to reduce the percentage of body fat?
To achieve a significant and sustained loss of body fat, a change in lifestyle and eating habits is necessary. One of the main consequences of the high percentage of body fat is that it slows down metabolism and metabolic energy rate, therefore, restrictive diets are not adequate.
3 Key Steps To Start Losing Fat
- Limit your intake of processed sugars and fats
These are highly caloric foods, to reduce the percentage of fat you need to cut those extra calories from your diet.
It is not about reducing carbohydrates, but consuming complex carbohydrates, low-calorie portions, and foods rich in fiber to feel more satisfied. Eliminating carbohydrates is restricting your diet and this further slows down your metabolism and hinders fat loss.
- Stay hydrated
Fluid retention hinders fat loss, ingest between 1.5 and 2 liters of water a day, this can vary according to your height and daily activities. Staying hydrated also helps control cravings and snacks between meals.
- Start a physical activity
A sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits are the cause of obesity. Starting to exercise increases caloric expenditure, so that it burns the accumulated fat for energy, aerobic exercise must be accompanied by strength training to strengthen muscle mass and increase the performance of metabolic rate