Health Library

Your Body Fat Percentage: What Does It Mean?

woman on scale The bathroom scale is a common tool people for those who are trying to get into better shape. Can the scale tell you the whole story? While it may be good to keep tabs on your weight, it is also vital to know what makes up your weight.

Body composition is the amount of fat you have compared to lean tissue (muscles, bones, body water, organs, etc). No matter what you weigh, the higher percentage of body fat you have, the more likely you are to have obesity related diseases such as:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Too Much Fat Versus Too Much Weight

    Your body mass index (BMI) is a measure that takes your height into account. Health experts may use BMI as a quick way to check if a person is underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. To find your BMI, divide your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared.

    Body Mass Index Ranges
    Weight Status BMI
    Underweight Below 18.5
    Normal 18.5 to 24.9
    Overweight 25.0 to 29.9
    Obese 30.0 and above

    The problem with BMI is that it does not work for everyone. Research has also had inconsistent results when linking BMI to specific health issues. Some people’s weight and height put them in the overweight or even obese group when they are lean and have muscles. Some people’s BMI suggests they are healthy when they are actually overweight. They may have little lean tissue and too much fatty tissue. This is where body fat measurement can help.

    Measuring Your Body Fat

    There are many ways you can find out your percentage of body fat. If you have ever had your body composition tested, it may have been done with calipers. Calipers are small clamp-like tools that can help figure out how much fat you have lying just below the skin. It does this by taking skinfold measurements around your body, such as the back of your arm and your waistline. These are used to estimate body fat.

    Calipers are widely used because they are low cost and easy to use. But they are less accurate than other methods. Other ways of checking body fat include:

    • Underwater weighing—Under water, lean tissue sinks and fat floats. Your underwater weight can be used to estimate the amount of fat mass you carry. Underwater weighing is very accurate, but it can cost a lot of money and take a lot of time to do. It needs special tools.
    • The Bod Pod—This machine measures how much air your body displaces. Like underwater weighing, the Bod Pod is very accurate. It can also cost a lot of money and needs special tools. The Bod Pod is a bit easier than underwater weighing since it does not need a person to go into water. The Bod Pod also takes less time.
    • Dual x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan—The DEXA scan uses low-level x-rays to figure out the amount of body fat, muscle, and bone in your body. This scan is quick. It also takes bone into account when comparing body fat to muscle.
    • Bioelectrical impedance—This looks at how fast an electrical current travels through your body. It is one of the lowest cost ways of measuring body fat. People are better at using it than calipers. But its accuracy depends on many things like how much food or water a person has taken in and how recently they worked out. If you are looking for a way to keep track of your body fat percentage at home, you can buy a bioelectrical impedance scale. Keep in mind that these scales are not always accurate. They are likely better for watching changes in your body fat than giving you precise numbers.

    Healthy Body Fat Percentages

    So, what should your body fat percentage be? It depends on your sex and age:

    Body Fat Guidelines
    Age Healthy Body Fat % (Women) Healthy Body Fat % (Men)
    20 to 39 21% to 32% 8% to 19%
    40 to 59 23% to 33% 11% to 21%
    60 to 79 24% to 35% 13% to 24%

    Women have a higher body fat to lean tissue ratio than men. People also have more body fat as they age.

    Reducing Your Body Fat

    There are many factors when it comes to weight and health. Focus on building healthy habits like daily physical activity and balanced diet. Seek help from exercise specialists or a registered dietitian to help you reach health goals. Talk to your doctor about your health goals and plans.

    Be wary of "quick" fat loss plans, pilss, or shortcuts. They are not likely to be effective and some can be dangerous. It is best to lose weight slowly—½ to 1 pound per week.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

    Canadian Resources

    Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology

    Health Canada


    About adult BMI. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:

    BMI calculator. Calorie Control Council website. Available at:

    Body composition. UC Davis Health website. Available at:

    Diets for weight loss. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:

    Gallagher, D., Heymsfield, S.B., et al. Healthy percentage body fat ranges: guidelines based on body fat index. Am J Clin Nutr, 2000; 72: 694-701.

    Staying away from fad diets. Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at:

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