While having a high percentage of body fat can contribute to many chronic diseases, not having enough body fat can be just as dangerous. There is a wide range in what is considered a healthy body fat percentage, which accounts for individuals who are within a healthy range, those who are considered fit and individuals who are athletic. If you have concerns about your percentage of body fat, it is best to speak with your physician who can recommend a healthy range based on your age, gender and overall physical health.
Percent Body Fat
When you test your body composition you are attempting distinguish what percentage of your weight is made up of muscle, tissue and bone and what percentage is made up of fat. Having too high of a percentage of body fat increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer and other chronic illnesses. Since your body needs some fat to survive and function properly, too low of a percentage of body fat can be both dangerous and fatal, according to the University of New Mexico.
Knowing your percent body fat is important because lean individuals may be at a healthy weight but can still have too much body fat, and individuals who may be classified as overweight due to their body weight may actually have a high percentage of muscle and a low percentage of fat, which is healthy. In addition, for athletes or those who follow a severely restrictive diet, body composition testing can ensure that the body retains essential fat.
Your body needs a certain amount of fat, which is called essential fat, and if your percentage falls below this level, normal body functions may be disrupted. Women need more essential fat then men to support reproductive functions. Essential fat is stored in small amounts in your bone marrow, organs and muscles. Fat plays many roles in the body, including regulating body temperature and cushioning and insulating organs and tissues; it is an important source of energy for your body, and fat needs to be present in order for you to absorb certain vitamins.
Percent Body Fat Ranges
For women it is important to not go any lower than 10 to 13 percent body fat and men should go no lower than 2 to 5 percent body fat, according to the American Council on Exercise. Athletic women are in the range of 14 to 20 percent body fat and athletic men are between 6 and 13 percent body fat. A woman who is considered fit has between 21 and 24 percent body fat, and a fit man falls between 14 and 17 percent. Higher than this is considered the average category which is still an acceptable amount of fat. Women in this category have a percent body fat of 25 to 31 percent and men are between 18 and 24 percent. Going higher than these percentages classifies you as overweight and places you at a higher risk of weight-related health problems.
A very low percentage of body fat is often encouraged in athletes to help improve performance. There can be pressure from coaches and peer pressure from other athletes to stay very thin. However, athletic performance will only get better if weight goals are realistic and the diet is well balanced. Athletes and others who strive for too low of a percentage of body fat may have underlying emotional issues that can be triggered by an event or participation in sports. When too much weight is lost, or when weight is shed through unhealthy means, there can be a loss of muscular strength and endurance, decreased aerobic and anaerobic power, loss of coordination, and impaired judgment.