I can’t count the number of times people have approached me with the question, “what is your body fat percentage?” And people are generally very interested in knowing what their specific percentage of body fat indicates.
What I’m about to tell you will likely shock you. Most of you know I’m a science guy and I like to have proof and known facts based on information we have at hand.
Many of you have probably stepped on a scale and been very disappointed to see the number after working out and eating healthy for some time. The scale didn’t move but a slight amount yet you know your efforts were real and you didn’t fool yourself by cheating.
A common response clients give is the scale likely remained higher because they increased muscle tissue and muscle of course is much denser than fat tissue. Although this is a logical assumption, it’s very doubtful the scale isn’t moving because of an increase in muscle tissue. It takes much more time than a few weeks for muscle increases to start overriding fat losses.
Maybe if you’re still someone in their twenties, but at middle age, it’s not likely.
On the other hand, you notice your clothes fit better, you feel better and people are starting to notice the difference in your appearance. Although you want measurable feedback that demonstrates the fruits of your labor, it isn’t always the best approach to depend on a test or device to give you this feedback.
When it comes to burning fat and building muscle, the bathroom scale and BMI (body mass index) are not your friends. Exchanging muscle for fat gives you a leaner appearance, faster metabolism, more energy (the list goes on and on) but it doesn’t do much to change the number on the bathroom scale (at least not as you might have hoped).
And BMI, which is really just a height to weight ratio, is inaccurate. For example, someone like me would be considered overweight according to my BMI. The Menopause Society presented results of a study in October 2014 showing that nearly 20 percent of women who have a normal BMI, actually have significant levels of body fat that would alter their classification and put their health at-risk. The reverse was also true for a small segment of the female population in the study.
So, how are you supposed to monitor your success? Let’s take a closer look at the modern day methods.
Measuring Body Fat Percentage
The traditional method of tracking progress is to measure your body fat percentage. This number will tell you what percentage of your body is water, lean tissue, muscle tissue, and fat tissue. You see, hard, cold facts, stats, the kind of stuff I usually like to see to show me the proof.
If you have ever belonged to a gym or attended a health fair, you have likely had your body fat measured using one of two methods: calipers or bioelectrical impedance scale (BIA). Caliper readings are generally performed by a health or fitness professional who use a caliper to pinch specific sites on the body to assess body fat and then provide an overall average. The accuracy of this method is based on the skill of the person administering the pinches.
The BIA scales use an electrical impedance (resistance) current to estimate body fat percentage. When you stand on the BIA scale or hold the handles of a portable BIA, it sends a signal through your body that travels through the water in your body. If the body has a lot of muscle it can hold more water and the signal will travel easily through the body. The more fat, the greater resistance the current receives. The trouble with this method is that your reading can vary based on how hydrated or dehydrated you are upon stepping on the scale.
While these two methods are the most common due to their accessibility, they are far from the most accurate.
The Gold Standard for Measuring Body Fat Percentage
The most accurate methods for assessing body fat are air displacement plethysmograph (also known as a “bod pod”), hydrostatic weighing, and dual-energy X- ray absorptiometry (DXA, pronounced “dexa,” for short).
Bod pods and hydrostatic weighing are vastly similar—each one, respectively, using air and water displacement to assess body fat. These were once the preferred methods for assessing body fat, with water displacement proving greater accuracy than air. However, a new method—DXA— has emerged that is very precise in its assessment, even compared to these methods.
DXA offers a very clear picture and assessment of body fat percentage, as well as bone density and lean tissue. One study, conducted by the CDC, showed its precision to be within one pound in either direction when comparing fat mass ratios over time.
Following a DXA scan, you will receive a report that tells you the individual masses of your bones, fat, muscle, and organs (lean tissues). The details of your entire body are reported, along with each segment, such as just the values for each arm or each leg. This is useful for professional athletes who may have been injured and need to monitor the restoration of muscle to the injured area compared to the rest of the body. The report also includes total body fat percentage alongside a chart of body fat percent reference values for Americans.
The DXA is not at your local gym and it isn’t something you can keep in the bathroom at home. Most DXA machines can be found at hospitals, doctor’s offices, and spas, like The Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Arizona. The cost of a single scan runs between $45 and $350 and is most often not covered by insurance.
The good news is that you don’t need a scan very often when using this method for tracking success. If you really must know your body fat percentage, you should ideally, get a scan before you begin a weight loss or transformation program and get another one about three months into the program or at the completion of your program, whichever comes first.
Experts recommend getting scans every three months to two years, depending on your starting body composition and the intensity of the program. Getting scans too often would show only marginal results. If at all possible, complete testing on the same DXA machine to ensure the greatest accuracy of your results.
DXA is also beneficial because it detects visceral fat—the dangerous type of fat that collects around the organs and can be a significant risk factor for heart disease.
While DXA is the “gold standard” for measuring body fat percentage, don’t think that it is a must-have for you to begin or complete your transformation program. Your progress will be evident in so many ways—how you look, how you feel, and how strong you are—the key is not to get boxed into thinking that the bathroom scale is the only gauge of progress.
The bottom line:
The ultimate method for measuring body fat is the mirror. Yes, the mirror! At the end of the day we can analyze the results printed out from the sophisticated modern technology we have at our disposal, yet by far the most accurate means we have for knowing how lean or fat a person really looks, is the human eye looking at the reflection of YOU in the mirror.
As the saying goes; the mirror does not lie. I don’t care what a machine tells me. If I look in the mirror and I can see that my body isn’t as lean as it should be for a photo shoot, then I’m not where I need to be, plain and simple.
The only precautionary measure you need to take when using the mirror to gauge your progress is that of a personal bias. If you look in the mirror and aren’t honest with yourself and paint a different picture of that reflection, you need to ask for outside help to provide honest feedback.
I personally have not used any modern methods for measuring body fat in over four years. The last time I did so using the Bod Pod, the results were laughable and even the person administering the test knew there were issues.
At the end of the day you should have a tight-fitting pair of jeans (or other piece of clothing) you use to measure your fat-loss progress. Why a pair of jeans? Because 99% of people carry excess fat in the abdominal region as the dangerous visceral fat (belly fat) so the waistline on your jeans provides excellent feedback in the direction you’re going.
When many of us are over 40+ and entering our middle-age years of life, we don’t care about athletic stats that a professional athlete would be concerned with. We care more about looking and feeling our best while living life with energy. Living a high quality, healthy life means more than anything.
Stand in front of a mirror naked with your most recent pair of overly tight-fitting jeans and each week see how this changes. There is no better, real, or more honest method for measuring your progress than that. Once again we see that simplicity is the path to finding the answer to what we thought was a complex problem.
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Philip J. Hoffman
Certified Sports Nutrition
Certified Fitness Trainer
Expert Fat Loss Coach