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How to Measure Subcutaneous Fat

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author image Sylvie Tremblay, MSc
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Based in Ontario, Canada, Tremblay is an experienced journalist and blogger specializing in nutrition, fitness, lifestyle, health and biotechnology, as well as real estate, agriculture and clean tech.
How to Measure Subcutaneous Fat
A nutrition or fitness professional can use calipers to measure your subcutaneous fat. Photo Credit demaerre/iStock/Getty Images

Having enough subcutaneous fat to "pinch an inch" might not have the health risks of deep-abdominal visceral fat, but it can still get in the way of achieving a very lean and toned physique. And if you're at a healthy body weight and trying to look more fit, measuring your subcutaneous fat levels might be the best way to track your progress, since you won't likely see huge results on the scale. However, you'll need to consult a professional to get an accurate reading -- measuring subcutaneous fat requires professional expertise or medical equipment.

Subcutaneous vs. Visceral Fat

The subcutaneous fat under your skin is just one type of stored fat in your body -- the other is visceral fat, which accumulates under your abdominal wall around your organs. Visceral fat creates that firm "beer belly" look, because it pushes your abdominal wall outward. Carrying excess visceral fat increases chronic inflammation because the fat secretes pro-inflammatory hormones into your bloodstream. Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, doesn't have the same pro-inflammatory effects as visceral fat. So while subcutaneous fat can make you look soft and out of shape, it doesn't pose the same level of health risk as visceral fat.

Measuring Subcutaneous Fat With Skinfold Calipers

Because subcutaneous fat lies right under your skin, a trained professional can measure your levels using calipers to measure your skin folds. They'll typically take skinfold measurements on several parts of your body, which might include your abdomen, sides, chest, the back of your arms and the front of your thighs. From there, a professional can estimate your body fat levels based on a few measurements. For men, who tend to store weight in their midsection, body fat calculations are typically based on abdominal, thigh and chest measurements; for women, who tend to store weight in their thighs and hips, the calculation is based on side, thigh and arm measurements.

While you might be able to purchase calipers at a reasonable price, you need specialized training to use them properly -- if you try to take skinfold measurements at home to estimate your subcutaneous fat, you'll likely get inaccurate results.

Measuring Body Composition With DXA

You can also measure subcutaneous fat through DXA, or dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. This X-ray technology essentially creates a full-body image that shows your fat distribution, so you'll be able to see your subcutaneous fat levels -- as well as any fat found deep in your abdomen. DXA offers a more complete look into your body composition and allows a professional to accurately measure your total body fat percentage, instead of estimating your body fat levels via skinfold measurements. DXA measurements require specialized medical equipment, however, so you might need to visit a specialized sports exercise lab to get tested. DXA assessment may also cost more than skinfold measurements.

Other Body Fat Measurements

Other body fat percentage measurements can help you figure out your body fat levels. Underwater weighing, for example, can help you determine your body composition, even though it won't distinguish between subcutaneous and visceral fat. A BodPod analysis also lets you figure out your body fat percentage without having to deal with the inconvenience of underwater weighing, though it also won't specify how much of your body fat comes from subcutaneous fat.

For the best results, talk to your doctor or a sports medicine specialist -- they can recommend the best test -- or combination of tests -- to measure your body fat and track your fat loss progress.

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