Understanding Body Fat – Why we need it and how to measure it


Understanding body fat can be broken down very simply, but can be a bit overwhelming. Simply put; body fat is just as it sounds, fat stored in our body. Scientifically it is called adipose tissue, but who’s keeping track. It is important to know why we need fat and how to measure it in order to successfully begin a fat loss journey.

What is body fat?

We have two different types of body fat, visceral and subcutaneous. Visceral fat is what surrounds our tissues and organs while subcutaneous is the majority and lies just beneath the skin. Visceral fat is what can be very dangerous for our health. It is THE unwanted fat that hangs out in our midsection, but it can also infiltrate the liver and even strangle the heart (in extreme cases). I know what you are thinking, only people who are severely overweight or those you can see have excess fat have visceral fat, and that is not the case. Even the skinniest individual can have visceral fat, it does not discriminate. Subcutaneous fat is the pesky stuff that can cause cellulite or dimples in the skin.

An important thing to remember…just because you don’t look like you are losing fat, doesn’t mean you aren’t. Studies have shown that people who begin cleaning up their diet and exercising lose visceral fat much faster than subcutaneous. This can be a little discouraging because most people who are looking to lose body fat want to be thinner or toned. But it is actually a great thing as visceral fat is very dangerous to our health. So if at first you feel discouraged because you aren’t seeing changes, don’t give up. You are just getting healthy from the inside out!

Why do we need fat?

Other than being considered unattractive in modern society, you may be wondering what role fat cells play in the body. Fat is needed for energy to both carry out daily activities, as well as carry out body functions.  A single pound of fat contains 3,500calories or stored energy. Wow, that would keep us energized for an exceptional amount of time…like walking 35 miles straight. IF, and only if, we only burned fat as energy. And that is only 1lb of fat. If we are carrying 30-40lbs of fat, that is a considerably large amount of stored energy.

Carbohydrates and protein can also store energy, but only 4 calories per gram. This means these energy sources are burned a lot quicker and they also just don’t have enough room to store anymore. This is because of water.

For every gram of glycogen (carbohydrate energy source in liver and muscle) you store 3-4 grams of water, as to compared to the 1 gram that accompanies fat. This also means that in order for us to store more glycogen, we also need to store more water, and our cells just don’t have the room for it.

This is why fat cells are so important for us. Without them we would have a lot less energy and a lot less stored water (which means dehydration…which means a lot of other health problems).

What is the ideal body fat percentage?

Body fat percentages vary depending on age and sex. This is because of hormones. Men have more testosterone, which makes losing fat and gaining muscle easier. Women tend to have more estrogen, which makes it easier to gain weight to maintain fertility, which begins at puberty.

Women also tend to carry more fat because of child bearing at some point in their life. Naturally women will “stockpile” energy to prepare for the excess energy needed when nourishing a fetus and then a baby.

As we age, these hormone levels begin to fluctuate. Men don’t produce as much testosterone and women go through menopause causing all kinds of hormone disruptions.

Below is a chart for body fat percentages based on age, for both males and females.

body fat percentage for women body fat percentage for men

How is body fat percentage measured and how much does it cost?

Body composition can be measured a few different ways, but of course, none of them can accurately be done at home. The more advanced versions will give you a breakdown of body fat percentage, along with a lean body mass breakdown such as muscle, water, bone etc. The more confined and cheaper the test, the less complex the results will be.

The most accurate way to measure body fat is through a DEXA scan. You can also use underwater weighing, skinfold measurements, bioelectric impedance and at h0me calculations (very inaccurate).

DEXA:dexa scan

Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry is the Gold Standard for measuring body fat. This test is actually most frequently used to determine bone density in older individuals who are at risk for osteoporosis, but can measure a wide variety of things.

How do they work?

You begin by lying on your back inside a machine (much like getting an Xray or MRI) and stay still while the machine runs up and down, taking about 15 minutes in total. The machine sends a thin, invisible beam of low-dose radiation, with 2 energy peaks through the bones. One peak is absorbed by the soft tissue (muscle/fat) while the other is absorbed by the bone.  These numbers are then displayed on a computer screen where they are interpreted and printed for your use.

These tests are usually the most expensive option and cost around $80-$200 depending on the company and if you were sent by your doctor, which then you can qualify for insurance help. Below are a couple of companies that offer DEXA scans.

Dexa Fit

Body Spec

Hydrostatic Underwater Weighing:

underwater weighing

Underwater weighing is another great test to determine body composition, but again costs money and needs to be done by specific facilities.

How does it work?

This test is based off of Archimedes Principle which states “the buoyant force on a submerged object is equal to the weight of the fluid that is displaced by the object.” In other terms, lean body mass (bone

 and muscle) are more dense than water, whereas fat tissue is less dense than water. Therefore, a person with more body fat will weight less underwater than someone with less fat.

To perform the test, the person is first weighed on land. They then get into a large tank of water that has a special scale attached. The person is then asked to expel all the air from their lungs and remain absolutely still while being weighed (which is obviously very difficult). The test is performed 3 times and an average is taken. A specific calculation is then done to determine lean body mass and fat mass.

Hydrostatic weighing typically costs anywhere from $30-$80 depending. Below is a company that does underwater weighing.

Body Fat Test

Bioelectric Impedance Analysis (BIA):measuring body fat

This is another way of measuring body composition, but is not as accurate as the ones listed above. It is however, pretty inexpensive.

How does it work?

This testing is done with handheld devices or most new home scales have added this feature as well. It is done by measuring the electric impedance of an electric current through body tissues which can then be used to estimate total body water, lean body mass and fat mass. This is very flawed as it relies a lot on how much water you have, if you are dehydrated the results can be skewed up to 5lbs! Again, this is a very inexpensive and convenient way to measure, but it is not very accurate.

BIA machines can be found at any large scale store or even your local gym could have one.

Skinfolds:skinfold calipers

This is a 4 or 7 site test done using skinfold calipers. It can be pretty accurate depending on the person performing the test. It does have its downfall as it only measures subcutaneous fat and not visceral, as it is done by pinching the surface/skin.

How it works?

Pinching is done using a pair of calipers, that can be found at most stores or online. All sites should be marked prior to pinching and will all be done on the right side of the body. Measurements are taken 3 times and an average at each side is recorded.

4-site test takes measurements at: Triceps, Abdominal, Suprailliac and Quadriceps.

7-site test takes measurements at: Triceps, Subscapula, Chest, Midaxillary, Suprailliac, Abdominal and Quadricep.

These numbers are then put into an equation (mostly commonly on www.exrx.net) and lean body mass, fat mass and body fat percentage values are given.

This test can be done at most fitness facilities and even some universities as students do the testing.

Online Calculations:

I don’t have much information about how these work, but there are some online calculations or sites you can use to get an AVERAGE reading for body composition. These will obviously be the most inaccurate as they usually just take in account height, weight and maybe a few circumferences. If you want maybe a general number or a starting idea, this might be a good idea. But if you are looking to track progress or specifics for body fat, i would not recommend. I also wouldn’t recommend this if you are someone who gets very stuck on number values (like the horrible scale) because it just gives you one more thing to have a bad relationship with!

Whew, that is a fat amount of information i just gave you. Punny! I hope this helps you understand body fat a little more in-depth, like different layers and why we need a certain amount! Do NOT get discouraged if you do not match the “ideal” numbers, this again is an average. No two people are alike when it comes to our bodies and how they work. Before starting a fat loss journey, it is important to know everything about what it is and get a baseline of information. Your knowledge can only grow from here!

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Haley Rowe November 16, 2017