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Why Body Fat Percentage is More Important Than Body Weight

Updated on April 22, 2012

Body Fat vs. Body Weight

Most dieters track the number of pounds they lose and have specific goals related to their body weight, which is great, up to a certain point. What most dieters don’t realize is that the most important metric to consider is their body fat percentage. Tracking body fat percentage instead of body weight has many unexpected benefits. First, it can encourage dieters to focus on maintaining and building the muscle mass necessary for a speedy metabolism. And second, it can end the preoccupation with the scale that many dieters have that can result in an unhealthy low calorie diet. If you're serious about losing weight and looking your best, change your focus to your body fat percentage and stop obsessing over the scale.

CC BY:  Via Flickr
CC BY: Via Flickr | Source

What is Body Fat Percentage and Why You Should Care

The body fat percentage is simply the pounds of body fat a person carries divided by their total weight. This number is then multiplied by 100 and expressed as a percentage. There is a certain amount of fat on the body that’s essential for living and this number is higher for women. Most sources say that a woman needs at least 3% body fat just to live. The average woman has a body fat percentage of 25-32% while someone who’s really fit may have a percentage in the 21-24% range. Top athletes and female bodybuilders can have body fat percentages as low as 15%.

When you see women with abdominal definition, you can be sure that their body fat percentage is below 20%. What you may not know is that some of these women could be considered borderline obese if BMI is used to assess their weight. This is because BMI considers only a person’s weight relative to height. For a very fit person with a lot of muscle definition, their weight relative to height might be large simply because muscle weighs more than fat. This results in a high BMI even though it’s obvious the person is in great shape.

In addition, weight alone isn’t a good indicator of fitness. It wouldn’t be too difficult to find two different women, both with the same height and weight but one of them has a firm abdomen while the other has a soft, fatty stomach. The woman with the firm abs has a lower body fat percentage while the flabby woman has a higher body fat percentage despite her low weight. This phenomenon is known as normal weight obese and is very common.

Body Fat Percentage as an Aid to Maintaining Muscle Mass

When you shift your focus to measuring body fat percentage instead of weight, an amazing thing happens. You’ll have a higher likelihood of maintaining and even building lean muscle mass while shrinking your fat stores. This is because the diet and exercise plan you'll follow as you try to reduce your body fat percentage promotes muscle building and fat burning as opposed to simply weight loss, where you could be losing muscle as well as fat.

The benefits of lean muscle mass are many. First, muscle requires a lot of energy and therefore burns calories even at rest. Having more muscle can therefore result in a higher metabolism. Having lean muscle mass will also make you look firm, lean and fit. Women often worry that if they lift weights or try to build muscle they'll end up looking like a man. This is simply not true and in fact is nearly impossible to achieve due to a lack of testosterone. Instead, women who lift become more compact and lean with great muscle definition.

How to Measure Body Fat Percentage

There are several methods to measure your body fat percentage. I've personally used calipers and body fat scales and found them to be easy to use and fairly accurate. The lease expensive is to purchase a skin fold caliper and learn to use it yourself.

Skinfold Calipers: These cost $15 to $400 and have a pretty good rate of accuracy of plus or minus 3%. You can purchase your own and learn how to use it or have it done at the gym.

Body-fat scales for home use: These will set you back $20 to $300. These scales determine body fat from the resistance to an electrical current and are also pretty accurate with a plus or minus 3% error range. You can find them Online or in home stores.

Hydrostatic testing (underwater): The most accurate method to measure your body fat percentage is underwater testing. The cost is $15 to $50 per test and the error rate is only plus or minus 1.5%. The drawback is that you'll need to go to a research institution, university or some gyms to get this done.

How to Measure Body Fat with Calipers

How to Lower Your Body Fat Percentage

In order to lower your body fat percentage, you'll need to change your lifestyle and think differently about dieting. Toss out the low calorie, restrictive diet and focus on the following:

1. Strength training: Lifting weights will increase your strength, make you appear compact and lean, and will increase your metabolism to help you burn more fat, even at rest. Don't be afraid of lifting heavy weights.

2. Nourish your body with whole foods: Eat 5-6 mini meals a day. Each meal should consist of whole foods with a mix of protein, unrefined carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Don't go on an extremely low calorie diet as this will make it difficult to build muscle.

3. Cardio: Instead of long distances, focus on shorter, intense bursts of cardio with rest periods in between. Look into Hight Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or the Tabata method.

5. Patience: Stop focusing on short term goals like losing 5 pounds in a week or two. This is unrealistic and not sustainable. Instead, have patience and know that your body composition is changing, even if the weight on the scale isn't.


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This is real useful and helpful, SD. This makes a lot of common sense. Voted up!

    • ramseysusan profile image

      Susan Ramsey 3 years ago from Killen, AL

      Nice hub SD! This is one of the great hubs I have read about body fats. Well presented information and ideas. :)

    • SD Dickens profile image

      SD Dickens 5 years ago

      Thanks for the positive comments Wee Irish Lass and congrats on achieving such a low body fat percentage!

    • profile image

      Wee Irish Lass 5 years ago

      Good page! I started working out and eating very well four months ago. My workouts have included cardio intervals, weight lifting, and yoga. I noticed a huge change in how my body feels but I only lost 5 pounds. Last week, I had my body fat tested and found out it's at 14%. I had wanted to lose another 5 pounds but now I realize that this would not be realistic or healthy- and I'm not out to lose the wonderful muscle that I've gained these four months.

      Focusing on body fat, rather than weight, has helped me to see my body much more clearly. My BMI puts me smack dab in the middle of the normal range (because I have muscle!), but my body fat percentage tells my that I am as lean as I can be healthily. I am now shifting my focus from fat loss to building a strong body and continuing to eat good whole foods. :)

    • Ruchi Urvashi profile image

      Ruchi Urvashi 5 years ago from Singapore

      Great information. It reminded me to focus on body fat instead of body weight.

    • Aeron Wright profile image

      Aeron Wright 6 years ago

      You are right, a person can have ideal body weight, which means with normal body mass index (BMI), but the body fat percentage might above the normal range. In long term, this could potentially increase the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes mellitus. Vote up for this hub!