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Understanding Your Body Fat Percentage

Body fat measurements and the measuring tape are recognized as  superior methods for measuring "weight loss".  When one declares that they want to "lose weight", what they often mean is that they want to lose fat. So, now that you've had your body fat percentage measured, what does the number really mean?  Understanding what your body fat percentage means can help you set goals for achieving a healthy weight.

First, your body fat percentage is simply the percentage of fat your body contains.  If you are 150 pounds and 10% fat, it  means that your body consists of 15 pounds fat and 135 pounds lean body mass (bone, muscle, organ tissue, blood and everything else).

A certain amount of fat is essential to bodily functions.  Fat regulates body temperature, cushions and insulates organs and tissues and is the main form of the body's energy storage.  The following table describes body fat ranges and their associated categories:

*General Body Fat Percentage Categories

Classification Women (% fat) Men (% fat)
Essential Fat 10-12% 2-4%
Athletes 14-20% 6-13%
Fitness 21-24% 14-17%
Acceptable 25-31% 18-25%
Obese 32% plus 25% plus
*American Council on Exercise

Knowing your body fat percentage can also help you determine if your weight loss goals are realistic.  Remember, weight loss doesn't always mean fat loss. For example:

Let's say you're a 130 pound woman with 23% body fat, and you goal is to "lose 20 pounds":

Initial body fat: 130 lbs. x 0.23 fat = 30 lbs body fat

Lean body mass: 130 lbs total - 30 lbs fat = 100 lbs lean body mass (bones, organs and all else)

Goal: 130# - 20# = 110 pounds

As you can see, the goal of losing 20 pounds is not realistic or healthy.   At 110 pounds, this woman still requires 100# of lean body mass (bones, organs, etc.), but would only be carrying 10#, or only 9%  body fat.   From the chart above, you can see that this is a dangerously low percentage.

A better goal might be for the woman to reduce her body fat from 23% to 18%.  In this case:

130# x 0.18 = 23 # body fat

100# lean body mass + 23 # = 123# goal weight

So, for this individual to achieve a lean, but healthy 18% fat, she would need to lose only 7 pounds of fat, reducing her weight from her current 130 pounds  to 123 pounds.  Losing more than 7 pounds means losing lean body mass (usually  metabolically-active muscle tissue), which is clearly not desirable.

So before you decide that you need to "lose weight", remember to consider that "weight" consists of both lean body mass and body fat.   Try to keep your weight loss goals realistic, and remember, keep the calorie-burning muscle, and lose only the fat.

Dietary supplements are not to be used to prevent or treat any disease. The Statements on this web page have not been evaluated by the FDA. Any information provided on this website is not a substitute for the advice of a licensed medical practitioner. Individuals are advised not to self-medicate in the presence of significant illness. Ingredients in supplements are not drugs and may not be foods.

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