This is a comprehensive guide to body fat percentage for weight training and fitness enthusiasts.
I’ll discuss just about everything any reasonable person would want to know about body fat percentage.
Specifically, this guide includes topics ranging from a basic explanation of what it is, to how it’s measured, to factors that influence different body fat distribution patterns and much, MUCH more.
Reading about all of these topics is great. But it’s not enough…
…I know you also want to see how different people look at different body fat percentages. It helps put everything else into context.
So, I’ve made sure to include tons of photos of real people – men and women of all shapes and sizes – all of whom have had their body fat estimated with one of the most accurate body fat testing technologies.
I know you will learn a bunch of interesting facts about body fat. Most importantly, though, you’ll gain practical knowledge that will help you reach your body composition goals faster.
As you’ll see, the table of contents below lists all the different topics in this guide. Click on a link to jump to that topic.
- What Is Body Fat Percentage?
- Why Is Body Fat Percentage Important?
- How to Measure & Track Your Body Fat Percentage
- ABCs of Body Fat Measurement: Always Be Consistent
- Don’t Get Too Caught Up On The Number
- Ideal Body Fat Percentage
- Real Life DEXA-Verified Body Fat Percentage Photos:
- Things To Understand When Thinking Of Body Fat Numbers (And Comparing Yourself To Pictures):
- Essential Body Fat & Storage Body Fat
- Body Fat Distribution
- Male vs. Female Body Fat Distribution
- Ethnic Differences in Body Fat Distribution
- Other Factors Affecting Body Fat Distribution Pattern
What Is Body Fat Percentage?
Body fat percentage is the percentage of your total body mass that is made of fat.
So if a 200 pound guy has 20 lbs. of fat on his body, he has 10% body fat (20/200=10%).
The remaining 180 lbs., or 90% of his total body mass (i.e. muscle, bone, organs, water, etc.), is considered his lean body mass (LBM).
Why Is Body Fat Percentage Important?
The lower your body fat percentage is, the leaner you are.
The higher your body fat percentage, the fatter you are. After a certain threshold (around 25-30% body fat for men, 30-35% for women), it starts to become unhealthy.
If your goal is to get lean, tracking body fat percentage over time provides valuable data that you can use to reach your goal faster.
Tracking body fat is better than tracking only your body weight…
…Why? Because losing, let’s say, 20 lbs of body weight does not necessarily mean you lost 20 lbs of body fat. Some of that weight loss could be from water, muscle glycogen and/or muscle tissue. And it should go without saying that you want to keep as much muscle as possible.
Similarly, if you’re trying to bulk up and build muscle, you shouldn’t just track your body weight. If you gain weight for the sake of seeing the number on the scale go up, you’re bound to put on an excessive amount of body fat.
Tracking your body fat in addition to body weight will help to minimize fat gains as you bulk.
How to Measure & Track Your Body Fat Percentage
There are several ways to measure your body fat, but not all are created equal.
None of the methods are 100% accurate, but some are far superior to others. Unfortunately, the best methods will cost you a bit of money and time to go to an appointment, but it’s worth it if the option is available to you.
Below, I’ll list, describe and review the pros and cons of all available body fat testing methods.
DEXA (Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry), or DXA, scans are arguably one of the top two most accurate body fat testing modalities available to the general public.
It’s rivaled only by hydrostatic weighing, which I’ll discuss in the section below. Although the hydrostatic method may be slightly more accurate in some situations, it is much more logistically difficult to carry out compared to the ~7 minutes of lying on a table that’s required for a DEXA scan.
DEXA machines are typically used by radiologists to analyze bone mineral density in patients who are experiencing, or at risk for, bone loss conditions (e.g. osteoporosis).
However, these machines are also capable of detecting fat mass and lean mass (note: lean mass for DEXA scans includes everything except bone mineral weight and fat mass [i.e. muscle, organs, water and waste]).
Unlike other testing methods, the body fat data in DEXA scans isn’t limited to just subcutaneous fat (fat under skin and atop muscles). DEXA scan results also include estimates of visceral fat (fat around organs) and intramuscular fat (fat within muscles like the marbling in a steak). Other testing methods either estimate these values or do not include them at all.
If that wasn’t thorough enough for you, DEXA scans go even further by providing a breakdown of your body composition by body region. The scan results tell you the mass and corresponding percentages of fat, lean mass and bone in each of the following segments of your body:
- Left/right arms
- Left/right legs
- Left/right trunk (i.e. rib cage region)
- Android (i.e. lower abdomen region)
- Gynoid (i.e. pelvic region)
So, DEXA scan reports don’t just give you an overall body composition reading. They show you how your mass is distributed throughout your body, including where you store your fat, and how much lean mass and bone mass is in each body region.
Hydrostatic, or underwater, weighing, is on the same level as, if not slightly better than, DEXA scans when it comes to accuracy.
Both methods have similar error rates when measuring individuals. Despite their error rates making them less than perfect, they are as good as it gets when it comes to accessible body fat testing methods.
So how does hydrostatic weighing work?
Hydrostatic weighing involves submerging an individual into a water tank and onto an underwater scale. The test administrator measures how much water their body displaces and how much they weigh under water.
It’s important that the test subject eliminates all air from his lungs, as well as any air trapped in his swimsuits or hair. Air changes how much water is displaced, so having excess air in or on the body will reduce the accuracy of the test.
The amount of water displaced is equivalent to the test subject’s body volume. The subject’s underwater weight is put into an equation along with his body volume and out-of-water weight, to calculate body density.
Body density can then be used to calculate an estimated body fat percentage.
The major drawback of hydrostatic weighing, however, is that it’s not the easiest or most convenient process. You have to get into a swimsuit, get dunked in water, exhale all the air out of your lungs and hold your breath until the test administrator gets a good reading…
…So while hydrostatic weighing may be slightly more accurate than DEXA, it requires a lot more time and effort on the part of the test subject. It also does not provide a report that gives a detailed breakdown of body composition by body region.
The Bod Pod is the name of the only commercially sold air displacement plethysmograph on the market for testing body fat percentage in adults (if you happen to be an infant, you’d use the Pea Pod® to measure your body fat)…
…What’s that, you say? You don’t know what an air displacement plethysmograph is?! Fine, I’ll tell you. 😀 It’s an instrument that measures body volume based on how much air it displaces.
Specifically, the Bod Pod is a large, egg-shaped capsule. It has two chambers inside of it, which are divided by a seat that extends up into a wall.
The test subject sits down in the seat in the main chamber, wearing a bathing suit or underwear, and a swim cap to keep their hair down.
The Bod Pod also has a scale built into it to measure body mass.
The capsule door is sealed. Then a diaphragm mechanism between the two chambers moves back and forth multiple times, creating an equal, but inverse change in the chambers’ volumes each time the diaphragm moves.
The volume change in either chamber creates a pressure increase in one, and a corresponding pressure decrease in the other. Sensors detect the magnitudes of the changes in pressure in the chambers, which is then used to measure the volume of the main chamber with the subject inside. Body volume is calculated by subtracting the new chamber volume from the original main chamber volume.
Body density is then calculated by dividing body mass (as measured using the built-in scale) by body volume.
The body density figure can then be plugged into an equation to estimate body fat percentage.
So, it is similar in concept to hydrostatic weighing, which involves measuring body volume by water displacement. Unfortunately, however, the Bod Pod is not nearly as accurate as hydrostatic weighing.
This stems from the fact that, compared to hydrostatic weighing, there are several more variables at play that can throw off Bod Pod measurements; namely, breathing pattern, body temperature, humidity, facial hair and tightness of the swimsuit/compression underwear.
Despite its shortcomings compared to hydrostatic weighing and DEXA scans, the Bod Pod is still significantly more accurate and consistent than the methods I’ll be discussing below (i.e. calipers, tape measurement/calculator, BIA scales)…
…In other words, it’s the worst of the best methods.
Skinfold Testing with Calipers
Skinfold testing involves pinching the visceral fat through the skin to form a “skinfold,” and then pulling it away from the muscle to measure its thickness with calipers.
Skinfold measurements are taken at multiple points on the body. The specific skinfold sites depend on the method used to predict body fat, and the sex of the person being tested.
For example, here are the different skinfold sites for the three most commonly used skinfold testing methods:
|3-Point Jackson-Pollock||4-Point Jackson-Pollock||7-Point Jackson-Pollock|
|Men:||Women:||Men & Women||Men & Women|
Below is an excellent video demonstrating how to measure any of the 7 skinfold sites.
Note: There is a slight variation between how to measure the chest skinfold on men vs. women. As explained in this video, males should take the skinfold halfway between their armpit and nipple; whereas women should take it closer to their armpit.
The accuracy of calipers depends a great deal on whether or not the measurements are taken correctly.
How do you make sure your skinfold measurements are taken the right way?
For starters, the measurements should be taken by someone else, if possible. Ideally, this person should be a professional with experience administering this type of test.
However, even in this best case scenario, skinfold tests have a significant margin of error for estimating body fat. The main reasons for this – aside from the test administrator’s skill – are as follows:
- The commonly used Jackson-Pollock equation is a prediction of body fat percentage based on hydrostatic weighing. However, hydrostatic weighing itself is a prediction that comes with it own margin of error. Therefore, there is a compounding of margins of error on caliper tests that could potentially produce a large discrepancy between estimated and actual body fat percentage.
- Jackson and Pollock, who published their skinfold equations in 1978, used a demographic of non-obese subjects for their research. This made sense at the time because obesity was uncommon at that time. However, in the fatter world we live in today, their equations may not be the best fit for everyone (pun intended). The equations were based on a quadratic model, which worked just fine for the non-obese demographic characteristic of participants. However, evidence shows that as skinfold measurements increase, the quadratic-based equations become less accurate. Researchers have developed a modified equation based on an exponential model that seems to have greater accuracy for obese populations. 1)Can we use the Jackson and Pollock equations to predict body density/fat of obese individuals in the 21st century? It’s also worth nothing that the demographic in the 1978 study was all or mostly white, meaning that the equation may be inaccurate for different races/ethnicities. I’ll discuss the relationship between race/ethnicity and body fat later in this article.
If you want to do a skinfold caliper test, all you need to do is:
- Get a pair of calipers (and preferably someone who can help take proper measurements).
- Decide which skinfold test you’re going to do (i.e. 3-point, 4-point or 7-point, as discussed earlier).
- Take the skinfold measurements and record them.
- Plug the measurement values into the calculator on this website.
- Keep in mind that this, like most other body fat testing methods, can vary significantly for individuals.
The circumference method involves measuring the circumferences of a few key body parts with a tape measure.
These measurements, along with your height, are plugged into an equation to estimate body fat percentage.
There are actually a few different circumference methods/equations that have been created over the years. However, for this article, I’ll focus on one of the better-known equations: the U.S. Navy Circumference Method.
Specifically, the measurements include:
- Height: Most people already know their height from going to the doctor. But if you don’t, then up straight, with your heels, butt and back against a wall. Measure barefoot.
- Weight: Weigh yourself to the nearest pound.
- Waist circumference: Measure around your torso at belly button level.
- Neck circumference: Measure below the Adam’s apple on the front of the neck and just a bit higher on the back of the neck; from a side view, the tape should be angled slightly downward from back to front.
- Hips circumference (women only): Measure hips/butt area at the fullest point.
For the most accurate and consistent results, follow these guidelines:
- Wrap the tape snugly, but not tightly: For all circumference measurements, make sure the tape makes contact with the body along all points, but is not so tight that it squeezed into the body and produces an inaccurately low reading.
- Use imperial units of measurement (i.e. pounds and inches): If you only have a metric (i.e. kilograms and centimeters) body scale or tape measure, then you’ll have to convert your measurements to pounds and inches.
- Consistent measurement timing: Take all measurements at the same time of day every time you do the test. Preferably, this would be in the morning upon waking – after using the restroom and before eating. Certainly, do not measure after eating a large meal or after a workout
- Measure multiple times: Cycle through all the measurements 2 or 3 times (i.e. weight, waist, neck, repeat) and take the average of each.
The Circumference Method Equation
As I noted earlier, these equations only work with measurements taken in inches.
As per this instructional document from the US military, below are the equations for estimating body fat percentage using the circumference method:
Equation For Men
Body fat % = [86.010 x Log10 (waist – neck)] – [70.041 x Log10 (height)] + 36.76
Equation For Women
Body fat % = [163.205 x Log10 (waist + hip – neck)] – [97.684 x Log10 (height)] – 78.387
If you don’t feel like whippin’ out your scientific calculator (I don’t blame you), then you can simply plug your measurements into an online calculator like this one…
…Or you can reference the tables I made, below:
The circumference method shares some key similarities with skinfold testing. Specifically, both methods are:
- Relatively easy to perform
- Based on anthropometry (i.e. based on measurements and proportions of different parts of the body)
- Not very reliable for accurately tracking body fat percentage on an individual level (though they’re decent on a population level)…
However, they differ somewhat in at least one important category: accuracy.
A close examination of the accuracy of circumference testing vs. that of skinfold testing reveals that the circumference method is the least accurate of the two.2)A comparison of military circumference equations to skinfold-based equations to estimate body composition
And as I discussed in the previous section, the skinfold method itself is not very accurate to begin with.
The relative inaccuracy of the circumference method is even more apparent for muscular individuals. If you’re on this website, chances are that you fall into this group (or will fall into this group in the future).3)Experts: Tape test has huge margin of error
Despite all the negatives of the circumference method, it actually has some significant redeeming merits that make it an effective tracking tool in the right context.
Specifically, if measurements are done correctly and consistently with enough time between tests, you’ll be able to see if you’re losing fat over time simply based on whether your body weight and circumference measurements are getting lower.
I’d argue that anyone wanting to track body composition changes should take circumference measurements periodically – even people who are doing DEXA or hydrostatic weighing.
However, it’s not necessary to plug the measurements into an equation to get a percentage, since it may very return a value that’s way off. Simply knowing the general trend in circumference measurements changes over time is enough to let you know if you’re on the right track.
NOTE: I recommend also tracking the circumferences of other major body parts besides the waist, neck and hips. Ideally, you would also measure your legs [mid-thigh], biceps, forearm, chest, shoulders and calves. Seeing how all this data changes over time can provide great insight into your body composition changes, and overall progress – Plus it’s great for motivation!
BIA scales are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to methods for measuring body fat percentage.
However, I’ll still give you an overview on them – and tell you why they (mostly) suck.
So, what exactly are these BIA scales and how are they supposed to work? Glad ya asked…
…BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis) scales use electrodes to transfer a very low-level electrical current through the skin and into the underlying body tissue.
The sensors then measure how much the body tissues resist the current. This data is used to estimate the total amount of water in the body, which in turn is used to estimate fat free mass, and by extension, body fat percentage.
You’ll most commonly see the relatively inexpensive commercial versions of the BIA scale. They come in the form of a handheld device, or the technology may be built into a digital bathroom scales. These consumer-grade products also happen to be the most inaccurate types of BIA scales.
There are more accurate, and much more expensive types of, BIA scales. But those are usually only found in clinical settings.
These higher quality, clinical BIA scales do have some merit. However, they are not practical – Even though they would be more accurate than a consumer-grade BIA scale for estimating body fat on an individual basis, they’re still not accurate enough to justify the time or cost involved in getting access to one…
…They are really only useful for things such as tracking group averages in clinical research when better options (e.g. DEXA, hydrostatic, BodPod) are unavailable.
So while clinical-grade BIA scales have some use for tracking group body fat averages in research, you could make a persuasive argument that the cheap consumer BIA scales are totally useless for group tracking, and especially for individual tracking.
ABCs of Body Fat Measurement: Always Be Consistent
When tracking body fat, taking consistent measurements is what matters.
That is, from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter if your body fat testing method precisely measures your true physiological body fat percentage. (As a side note, knowing your true body fat percentage would only be possible if someone could physically separate all of your fat from your body and weigh it).
Rather, what’s important is that your body fat testing method can detect change over time, even if the percentages it calculates each time are wrong.
Of course, the more accurate testing methods are generally more consistent. However, the point is to do everything you can to keep measurements consistent, no matter which test you’re doing.
In other words, control your variables!
The variables that can affect your results are different for each testing method, but there’s a lot of overlap. Below, I’ll describe how to control for some of the most common variables:
- Use the same testing method each time (e.g. Don’t jump from skinfold testing to DEXA to Bod Pod)
- Have the test performed the same way each time (e.g. using the same machine and facility for DEXA/hydrostatic/Bod Pod, having the same person use the same calipers in the same way for skinfold testing)
- Do the test at the same time of day with approx the same amount of food in your stomach (e.g. in the morning on an empty stomach)
- Do the test on a typical day (e.g. not after a night of drinking, or after a major day of cheat meals)
- Do the test before working out for the day
- Wear the same clothes/swimming trunks (this applies to DEXA/hydrostatic/Bod Pod testing)
- Avoid big shifts in water weight (this could be caused by a number of things: consuming a lot more/less sodium than usual; having a lot more/less caffeine than usual; drinking a lot more/less water than usual; menstruating)
- For any of the non-clinical/at-home methods that require inputting your body weight, make sure you use the same scale each time
Don’t Get Too Caught Up On The Number
Among the fitness crowd, it’s common for someone to at least somewhat-arbitrarily guess what their own body fat percentage is.
They get this number in their head, and they cling to it. At some level, they may even begin to identify with it.
Once they actually get their body fat professionally tested, the results are often higher than they expected. Whether this is because they underestimated their own body fat or because the test was inaccurate, is irrelevant.
Predictably, they are surprised and discouraged because they were so attached to being at some arbitrary percentage…
…What’s unfortunate is that they’ll feel this way even if they had been making progress and getting objectively leaner.
This is why it’s important that you:
- Do not get attached to a certain body fat percentage, especially if it’s just based on a “guesstimate.”
- Even if you’ve previously been tested using one of the more accurate testing methods (i.e. hydrostatic or DEXA), you still shouldn’t take that number as gospel. Even the most accurate body fat percentage measurement methods have noteworthy margins of error – Hypothetically, you could test at 12% one time, then after losing a few lbs of pure fat, you could test at 15%.
- Use progress pictures/video and observe your physique in the mirror. Using these visual tools, in addition to periodic body fat testing, will give you the best possible idea of if, and how much, your body composition is changing over time.
Ideal Body Fat Percentage
There is no single “ideal” body fat percentage for every person.
Your ideal body fat percentage depends largely on these three factors:
- Physique goal/fitness level
Male vs. Female: How Sex Affects Ideal Body Fat Percentage
Women require more body fat than men.
They need this extra body fat for production of the key female sex hormone, estrogen, which is necessary for reproductive function (as well as bone formation and other functions).
In a 2000 study, researchers Gallagher et al. created the groundwork for a method of to determine normal vs. overweight vs. obese body fat percentage ranges. They did this by coming up with equations to estimate body fat ranges that correspond to the BMI ranges established by the World Health Organization…
…While BMI is very accurate for estimating body fat on a population level, it can be highly inaccurate on an individual basis (e.g. muscular bodybuilders with low body fat percentages may be classified as overweight or obese using BMI). Whereas, body fat percentage guidelines are much more useful for individuals.
According to the Gallagher et al. study, a normal/healthy body fat range for a younger adult female (ages 20-39) is 21-33%, with 33-39% considered overweight and anything over 39% classified as obese.4)Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index (Figure 4)
For younger adult males (ages 20-39), the healthy range is 8-20%, 20-25% is considered overweight and anything exceeding 25% falls under the obesity category.5)Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index (Figure 4)
NOTE: As I’ll discuss in the next section, the ranges for healthy, overweight and obese body fat percentages increases as age increases. Additionally, the body fat percentage ranges given above are based on black and white individually, however, I should note that the percentages change slightly for every race (I’ll talk more about race/ethnicity later on).
How Age Affects Ideal Body Fat Percentage
In the previous section, I touched upon how age affects ideal body fat percentage. To review:
- Women between 20-40 years of age are considered to have a healthy body fat if they are within the range 21-33%. Whereas, women over 40 have a slightly higher healthy range of 23-26% body fat.
- Younger men aged 20 to 40 have a lower healthy body fat range between 8-19%, compared to their over-40 counterparts, whose healthy range is 11-25%.
I created a table below that summarizes this data:
This data raises a question – Why does a higher age mean higher levels of body fat are acceptable?
It’s because as people get older, they accumulate more fat around their organs (i.e. visceral fat) and within their muscles (i.e. intramuscular fat). However, the fat under the skin and over the muscle (i.e. subcutaneous fat) doesn’t necessarily have to increase, though it often does because most people become less active as they age while keeping their same diet habits.
Also, the healthy vs. unhealthy body fat percent ranges shown above take into account the body’s natural tendency to lose lean body mass (i.e. bone and muscle loss) as age progresses. If lean body mass decreases, then body fat makes up a higher percentage of body weight by default…
…However, older individuals can negate or at least significantly slow down this lean mass loss if they stay active and regularly do some form of resistance training (preferably weight training).
How Physique Goal And Fitness Level Affect Ideal Body Fat Percentage
If we’re talking about competitive physique athletes, their ideal body fat will be much lower than that of a non-competitive avid gym-goer. And the gym-goer’s ideal will be lower than the average sedentary office worker, and so on.
Real Life DEXA-Verified Body Fat Percentage Photos:
When researching this article, I became annoyed that most other articles on this topic reference photo examples of people at different body fat percentages without any type of verification that they were tested at all, or what type of testing method the percentages are based on…
…Basically, it looks like the commonly referenced body fat guide photo collages found online are based on guesses of body fat percentages.
This wouldn’t be bad if the guesses were accurate. Instead, these popular photo collages tend to consistently underestimate body fat compared to what a DEXA or hydrostatic test would likely show.
Of course, this isn’t intentional and the creators of these body fat photo collages are only trying to help (and they do help; some more than others).
I wouldn’t complain about this if I didn’t have a better alternative.
I took on the tedious task of scouring the Internet for hours looking through bodybuilding and fitness forums, personal blogs and social image sharing sites to find as many verified examples of people who have done DEXA scans and reported their results with pictures.
I have compiled these results in the three slideshows below. The first two are DEXA-verified examples of men, and the last one is of women. I’ve included attribution to the original sources for each set of photos:
Things To Understand When Thinking Of Body Fat Numbers (And Comparing Yourself To Pictures):
Essential Body Fat & Storage Body Fat
Body fat can be divided into two sub-categories:
- Essential fat
- Storage fat
Essential fat is the minimum amount of fat your body needs to remain healthy and carry out its normal functions. It is stored in and around the organs as a necessary part of their structure and to protect and insulate them them.
The amount of essential body fat differs between men and women. Essential body fat is 3-5% in men, and about 12% in women.6)National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement: Safe Weight Loss and Maintenance Practices in Sport and Exercise
Women require so much more essential fat than men largely because of their reproduction system needs. As you may have guessed, this is related to why women have more fat in their breasts, hips and thighs.
Storage fat includes all other fat in the body. Here’s the breakdown of storage fat:
- Most of it subcutaneous fat, which accumulates under the skin and over the muscles.
- Some of it is intramuscular fat, which is within muscle like in marbled meat.
- And some more of it is [storage] visceral fat, which is located around the organs. (NOTE: some essential fat is also visceral fat. However, storage visceral fat refers to any amount of visceral fat in excess of the limited amount of essential visceral fat).
Body Fat Distribution
Body fat distribution refers to where your body prioritizes fat storage.
Fat loss works on a first in, last out basis – That is, the first place you gain fat is the last place you lose it. This is why you’ll often hear people talking about their “stubborn” areas.
So, let’s say you’re a guy whose body prioritizes fat gain on lower abs. If you’re dieting down for a bodybuilding or physique competition, then the last little bit of fat you’ll lose before you’re competition-ready will be from the lower abs region.
The biggest factors determining your body fat distribution pattern are your sex, ethnicity and age.
Male vs. Female Body Fat Distribution
Women store more of their fat in their hips, butt, thighs and breasts. This is referred to as a gynoid fat distribution pattern, which lends itself to a more pear-shaped body.
Whereas, men tend to store fat more centrally on their body, specifically in the abdominal region. This is known as an android fat distribution pattern, which gives the body a more apple-shaped silhouette.
That said, body fat distribution can vary from person to person within each sex, at least to an extent.
For example, compared to the average male, some men might carry more fat in their lower body relative to their gut.
This is why some guys can have a relatively high body fat percentage yet still have a faint six-pack. Whereas, guys with bodies that prioritize fat gain in the stomach region could look pretty ripped in a loose shirt, yet they’d be sporting a slight belly if they went shirtless.
Conversely, some women deviate from the average female fat distribution pattern. That is, they may have less fat from the hips down, and more fat in the midsection.
Ethnic Differences in Body Fat Distribution
Research suggests that the following are basic differences between ethnicities/races.
I found a great book that summarizes the very complicated subject of fat distribution differences between races/ethnicities (among other body fat related topics). The book is Encyclopedia of Obesity and was edited by Kathleen Keller, PhD, an obesity researcher and professor.
In this section, I’ll try to give very brief summaries of the ethnic body fat differences, and include a screenshot of supplemental text from the book to give additional information.
Compared to white women, Hispanic women tend to hold more fat in their trunk than peripherally7)Total and regional body composition across age in healthy Hispanic and white women of similar socioeconomic status. As indicated in the excerpts below, there is some evidence indicating that Hispanic men may also have a centralized fat distribution pattern, though the research is not conclusive:
Compared to Caucasians, African Americans tend to carry more fat in the trunk and less in the arms and legs. See the excerpts below from the Encyclopedia of Obesity for more on African American body fat distribution.
Additionally, African Americans tend to carry more fat on the rear and side parts of their body.8)Measures of body composition in blacks and whites: a comparative review
NOTE: It’s important to note that research also shows that body fat distribution is affected by environmental and behavioral factors such as stress, alcohol consumption and smoking. Specifically, these factors are associated with an android fat distribution as well as increased visceral fat, both of which likely play a role in many health problems.
Other Factors Affecting Body Fat Distribution Pattern
I’ve already discussed the two biggest factors determining body fat distribution patterns: sex and ethnicity/race.
However, there are other notable factors that affect fat patterning. I’ll mention these, but I won’t go in-depth on them for this article:
- Age: As we get older, our bodies tend to shift body fat storage toward the trunk and upper body, and away from the lower body.9)Obesity Panacea: Age-related changes in total and regional fat distribution This shift toward a more central body fat distribution is largely due an increase in visceral (i.e. intra-abdominal) fat accumulation.10)Studies in the distribution of body fat: I. Effects of age, sex, and obesity 11)Age-related changes in total and regional fat distribution 12)Age trends in adiposity and central body fat distribution among adult white men resident in Peterborough, East Anglia, England. It is less clear whether there is also a disproportionately high increase in central subcutaneous fat accumulation.13)Age-related changes in total and regional fat distribution In women, there is a big jump in intra-abdominal fat during menopause.14)Studies in the distribution of body fat: I. Effects of age, sex, and obesity 15)Menopause-related changes in body fat distribution In men, the age-related intra-abdominal fat increase is more gradual in its acceleration.16)Studies in the distribution of body fat: I. Effects of age, sex, and obesity
- Physical Activity: Evidence suggests that higher levels of physical activity causes a greater reduction in intra-abdominal fat, resulting in a less centralized body fat distribution.17)Fat distribution, physical activity, and cardiovascular risk factors 18)Effect of intensity of physical activity on body fatness and fat distribution 19)Physical activity and gain in abdominal adiposity and body weight: prospective cohort study in 288,498 men and women In particular, high intensity physical activity has been shown reduce intra-abdominal fat/central adiposity significantly more than lower intensity activity.20)Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition 21)Changes in Body Fat Distribution and Fitness Are Associated With Changes in Hemoglobin A1c After 9 Months of Exercise Training
Same Body Fat Percentage Looks Different With Different Lean Body Mass
Hypothetically, let’s say there’s a pair of identical twins who share all the same characteristics (including but not limited to: sex, height, body fat percentage, body fat distribution), except one important difference – one of the twins has 40 lbs. more muscle than the other…
…Even though they have identical body fat percentages, the more muscular twin would look leaner.
This is because the muscle “protrudes” somewhat through the layer of fat covering it. This creates contours and a more defined shape compared to the body of the less muscular twin.
It’s important to bear this in mind if you’re ever trying to compare one person’s body fat percentage to your own body fat or to someone else’s.
If nothing else, the ability to minimize the negative visual aesthetics that come from gaining an extra bit of fat is just one more reason to embrace weight training to build muscle.
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