Fat. It’s the dirty three-letter word that we all dread.
Over the past few years, fat has gotten an unfortunate rap. We curse our dimpled cellulite, despise our muffin-top and pray to God that the large slice of chocolate cake we had for dessert was 100% fat-free.
But, to be fair, fat is an important part of healthy lifestyle and it’s important to have realistic expectations about ideal and not-so-ideal body fat. Sure, we all dream of having bodies with absolutely no fat, but realistically it’s not healthy. In order for our bodies to function properly, it’s important to maintain an essential amount of body fat.
Before I go into different Body Fat Percentages and their implications, it helps to be familiar with these terms and concepts:
- Body Fat Percentage: is the amount of body fat (kg) divided by total body weight, listed as a percentage. For example, a 65kg woman with 10kg of body fat has a body fat percentage of 15% (10/65*100).
- Body Fat Distribution: how fat is distributed across our bodies. Body Fat Distribution differs between men and women, person to person. For example, some women may have very little body fat on their abs, but a lot on their thighs and triceps, while others will have the opposite.
- Body Shape: Like Body Fat Distribution, we all have different body shapes and fat is distributed differently depending on your body shape. Two different body types can have the exact same body fat but look completely different. A classic example is a skinny runway model may have the same body fat percentage as a fit, athletic women.
- Age: It’s a bitter truth, but most body fat measurement devices show that as we age, our body fat levels increase. For example, a 20-year-old man and a 50-year-old man may have the same subcutaneous body fat measurement (fat under the skin), but the 20-year-old may be 15% and the 50-year-old will be at 20%. This happens because, as we age, the fat around the organs (visceral) and within muscle (intramuscular) tends to increase. So, while you may not necessarily see this fat visually, it is there and will be reflected in body fat percentage scores.
- Muscle Striations: As an individual becomes more toned and defined, the actual muscle can be seen more clearly, which looks like thin rods, referred to as striations.
- Vascularity: This refers to the appearance of veins in different areas of the body as body fat decreases. Think stereotypical male body builders and you’ll hopefully know what I’m talking about.
Body Fat Descriptions Of Women
Body Fat Percentage Women 10-12%
This is an extremely low body fat level typically attained by female bodybuilders. Essential fat for women is round 8-10% compared to 2% for men. Why the difference? Well, to be frank, it’s called BOOBS. Women have more fat in breast tissue and the area surrounding the uterus. This level of body fat is NOT considered safe or healthy for women, who will be unable to menstruate. Striations of muscle, separation between muscles, clear vascularity are all noticeable at this level.
Body Fat Percentage Women 15-17%
This is still considered a very low body fat for women, which is similar to the 6-7% body fat for range men. Many bikini and fitness models will reach this body fat level and some may not be able to menstruate. Muscle definition in the abs, legs, arms, and shoulders is apparent, there is some vascularity and some separation between muscles. Hips, buttocks, and thighs generally have a little less shape because of the low body fat.
Body Fat Percentage Women 20-22%
This is body fat percentage is usually in the “fit” category of most body fat charts and is typical of many female athletes. Some definition in the abs is apparent, there is body fat on the arms and legs, but it’s not too pronounced. There is minimal, but some separation between muscles.
Body Fat Percentage Women 25%
This is on the low end of what’s average for most women and is characterized by a shape that is neither too slim, nor overweight. Curves in the hips are usually more apparent along with more fat in the buttocks and thighs. A 5’4” women who weighs 60kg and has 45kg of lean body mass has roughly 25% body fat.
Body Fat Percentage Women 30%
As the body fat of most women (but certainly not all) increases, this fat tends to accumulate around the hips, buttocks, and thighs. At 30% body fat, the hips, thighs, and buttocks are more pronounced and round. This is considered the high end of average for women in many body fat charts.
Body Fat Percentage Women 35%
The hips become even wider at this level of body fat and the face and neck will appear rounder and more full. Hip circumference can start approaching 40+ inches and waist circumference of 32+ inches. Some belly fat may start protruding over the waist as well.
Body Fat Percentage Women 40%
The hips and thighs grow larger so that hip circumference can reach 42+ inches, waist of 35 inches, and thighs over 25 inches.
Body Fat Percentage Women 45%
The skin may begin to lose its smooth appearance as more and more fat accumulates. Hip Circumference can may reach 45 inches+ and waist circumference 35+ inches. The hips may become noticeably wider than the shoulders.
Body Fat Percentage Women 50%
The will likely look like it has dimples more fat accumulates. Hip Circumference can may reach 45+ inches and waist circumference 40+ inches and thighs above 30+ inches. The hips will likely be noticeably wider than the shoulders. To put it in better perspective, a 5’4” women who weighs 90kg and has 45kg of lean body mass has 50% body fat.
Ideal Body Fat Percentages
The chart below from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is one of the most commonly used body fat charts.1
“Essential fat” is the minimum amount of fat necessary for basic physical and physiological health. There is a lot of controversy over what amount of body fat is optimal for overall health. A research paper by Gallagher et. al. in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000) came to the conclusion that certain low body fat ranges are “under-fat”, which implies “unhealthy”. According to this research paper, men who are between 20-40 years old with under 8% body fat are considered “under-fat”, whereas a “healthy” range is described as between 8-19%. For women in this same age group, any level under 21% is “under-fat” and 21-33% is considered “healthy”.
In my opinion, I think body fat is one important measure of health, but stating a certain body fat level is “unhealthy” doesn’t give the whole story. In fact, some overweight people who exercise can be healthier than their leaner non-exercising counterparts. On the other hand, to imply that anyone who has a six pack (below 8% body fat for men), is very athletic, and eats well is “under-fat”, or “unhealthy” is a stretch. We all have different shapes, sizes, and fat distribution profiles, but I think the chart above is a good reference point.
At the end of the day, there are so many different ways of measuring your progress. Don’t be discouraged if your body fat percentage isn’t what you hoped or thought it would be. Rather, focus on living a lifestyle that makes you healthy and happy and, eventually, your body will gravitate towards your goals. In the mean time, look at the other numbers – like how much more weight you can lift, or how many more burpees you can do in a minute. Don’t be discouraged, look at how far you’ve already come, keep going and soon the numbers will catch up. Remember, slower change is PERMANENT change. A quick fix is exactly that – quick and TEMPORARY.
Team, we are just getting started…