How to Evaluate Your Body Composition
Many people believe that scale weight is the primary determinant of whether or not they are fit. That belief has resisted not only the test of time but a lot of the true scientific research behind weight loss and weight management. The reason for this is that many high-profile health professionals continue to use scale weight as the measure of successful dieting and health instead of the true gold standard of weight loss: body composition.
Whether your ultimate goal is to lose weight, improve your general health, or to simply have a more toned and attractive body, you need to understand that your primary focus should be on body composition—your ratio of fat to lean tissue—rather than just on how much you weigh. This article offers a definition of good body composition and gives guidelines on how to evaluate your own body makeup—professionally or at home.
What Comprises a Lean Body?
It is a myth that low scale weight automatically means lean. The world of dieters is filled with what I refer to as “skinny fat people,” those who have managed to reduce their scale weight considerably through calorically-deprived weight loss programs but at the sacrifice of lean muscle.
The body requires a basic amount of calories every day to repair and maintain lean tissue and to keep one’s metabolism efficient at burning fat. When a person is eating the correct type and amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate daily to support their metabolism, they will drop body fat and build and maintain a healthy percentage of lean muscle, even if they are overweight to begin with.
When a person is eating too few calories to repair lean tissue and support metabolic function, the body will have to get its energy sources from somewhere—it will literally cannibalize its own muscle tissue to feed and repair itself. A person will lose scale weight on this type of diet, but it will be the wrong kind of weight. So, instead of being firm and svelte, these individuals will look flabby and gaunt.
The correct definition of having a lean body is how much you weigh per square inch. A pound of fat is three times the volume of a pound of lean tissue. Muscle tissue is very dense and compact. So, you could literally lose five pounds of body fat and gain five pounds of lean tissue and have a much leaner and tighter body with no scale weight differential at all!
Below is a chart defining healthy and unhealthy levels of body fat.
BODY FAT PERCENTAGE LEVEL MEN WOMEN Athletic, very lean 10.0 or lower 15.0 or lower Good/lean 10.1 to 15.0 15.1 to 18.0 Average 15.1 to 20 18.1 to 22.0 Fair/Fat 20.1 to 24.0 22.1 to 27.0 Obese Above 24.0 Above 27.0
How to Have Your Body Composition Evaluated
If you do not want to go to the expense of having your body composition tested by a professional, there is a simple at-home test that you can perform that is reasonably accurate. There are both female and male versions of this test.
At-home Body Composition Test for Females
1. Multiply your hips (inches) _____ X 1.4 = _____ minus 1 = ______ (A)
2. Multiply your waist (inches) ____ X 0.72 = ____ minus 2 = ______ (B)
3. Add A plus B = ________ (C)
4. Multiply your height (inches) ______ X 0.61 = _______ (D)
5. Subtract D from C, then subtract 10 more: C – D – 10 = _______%
Your answer will be your approximate body fat percentage, if you are a female.
At-Home Body-Fat Test for Males
1. Multiply your hips (inches)____ X 1.4 = ____ minus 2 = ____ (A)
2. Multiply your waist (inches) ____ X 0.72 = ____ minus 4 = ____ (B)
3. Add A plus B = ____ (C)
4. Multiply your height (inches)____ X 0.61 = ____ (D)
5. Subtract D from C, then subtract 10 more: C – D – 10 = _____ percent
This is your approximate body fat if you are a male.
If you wish to calculate how many pounds of fat and how many pounds of lean body weight you carry, use the following two formulas:
Total weight (lbs.) ____ X percent body fat ____ = ____ total pounds of fat
Total weight ____ minus total pounds of fat ____ = ____ total pounds of lean weight
Knowing how many pounds of body fat versus lean muscle you have can be a great motivator to make a body composition change.
Getting Your Body Composition Evaluated by a Professional
If you prefer to have a body composition test conducted by a trained technician, other options, in order of price and accuracy, include hydrostatic weighing, bioelectrical impedance, and skinfold measurement with a caliper.
Although it is the most expensive test, costing between $100 and $150, hydrostatic weighing is currently considered the gold standard of body composition. This technique is based upon the assumption that the density and specific gravity of muscle is greater than that of fat. For this reason, lean tissue should sink in water and fat tissue should float. By comparing a test subject’s mass measured while under water with his mass measured while out of water, a technician can calculate your body composition rather accurately, within plus or minus 3% of your true body composition. You can usually find a facility for hydrostatic weighing at a local university, hospital wellness center, college, health club, or fitness center.
Bioelectrical impedance is based on the fact that lean tissue, because of its higher water content, is more conductive of electrical current than fat tissue. A technician attaches a bioimpedance meter to the subject’s hands and feet and passes current through the body via electrodes. The more lean tissue a person has, the greater his or her conductive potential. Compared to hydrostatic weighing, there is a plus or minus 4% margin of error, if done correctly.
These days, with the advanced technology available, even some bathroom scales are equipped with bioelectrical impedence devices that can measure your body fat. Unfortunately, these scales can only measure you vertically and are generally not very accurate. It is much better to have this test done by an expert with proper equipment.
Skinfold measurement with a caliper is the most convenient method for measuring body fat since it is low cost (about $5 to $15) and is readily available at your local hospitals, physical therapy centers, health clubs, schools, universities, and through the offices of exercise physiologists, and dietitians. The assumption behind this test is that subcutaneous body fat is proportional to overall body fat.
Therefore, the body fat to lean muscle ratio can be calculated by measuring anywhere from four to eight sites of skin thickness and plugging the numbers into a mathematical formula. This test has an error rate of plus or minus 5%. Remember, the scale can never tell you the whole story. The true definition of what it means to be lean is organically centered in a healthy body composition. If you repair and support your body by eating the proper amount of calories to help it to function at optimum metabolic efficiency, you should be pleased with the results.