Body fat percentage charts make it easy to see whether you need to lose, gain or maintain weight, but first you’ll need to measure your fat. It’s not hard to do using a skinfold test, but it helps to find a fitness trainer or professional who can do it for you. Alternately, you can consider using the body mass index combined with waist measurements to determine if your body fat is in the healthy range or putting you at risk for chronic disease.
Total Body Fat Percentage
Health professionals use specialized equipment to get a precise reading of body fat percentage, but anyone can use a caliper to do a skinfold test. Gently pinching up skin in several areas and measuring the width with a caliper tells you the amount of excess fat stored under the skin. The caliper readings can be turned into a fat percentage using a chart such as the one at AccuFitness. Calipers have a few downsides: results can vary depending on who does the measuring and the quality of the instrument, so they're not always accurate. They are, however, a good way to track fat loss as you follow a diet and exercise regimen.
While the AccuFitness chart is color-coded to show whether your percentage is lean, ideal or overweight, you can also compare your percentage to a simpler chart that breaks it down into body-fat ranges according to athlete, average and obese. The average amount of body fat for women is 25 to 31 percent, but the amount goes down to 14 to 20 percent for women athletes. Women with body fat at or above 32 percent are considered obese. For men, the average is 18 to 24 percent, while male athletes should have 6 to 13 percent body fat. Obesity for men is defined as 25 percent body fat and higher.
Essential Body Fat Chart
Believe it or not, some stored fat is good for you. Bone marrow, organs, the central nervous system and muscles all harbor a small amount of fat, where it’s absolutely essential for normal functioning. That’s why it’s called essential fat. Fats in the central nervous system keep nerve cells firing at a rapid pace, and fat stored in muscles serves as an important source of fuel during endurance activities -- just two vital jobs of essential fat.
Women need more essential fat than men because it supports hormones and reproductive health. They should have a minimum of 10 to 13 percent essential body fat, according to the American Council on Exercise. By comparison, men need only 2 to 5 percent essential body fat to stay healthy. Unfortunately, you can’t measure your own essential body fat. Only a health professional using advanced calculations and equipment can do that job.
Measuring Abdominal Fat
When you eat more calories than your body needs for energy, the extra calories get turned into fat and stored in fat cells. Most excess fat gets stored under the skin, which is why calipers can give you a fair estimate of fat percentage. Stored fat also infiltrates deep into the abdomen and surrounds organs, where it’s called abdominal fat or visceral fat. Abdominal fat is especially bad for your health. It increases the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes more than fat stored under the skin.
Rather than relying on percentage charts, the best way to figure out whether you have too much abdominal fat is by measuring your waist circumference with a tape measure. A waist bigger than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men is defined as abdominal obesity. Of course, this measurement includes abdominal fat and fat under the skin, but the University of Florida IFAS Extension says research shows that these values are associated with the amount of fat deep in the abdomen.
Professional Tools to Assess Body Fat Percentage
One quick-and-easy tool often found at gyms and sports clinics can also be purchased and used at home. It looks like a typical bathroom scale, but sends small electrical currents into the body that detect body fat. This method, called bioelectric impedance, doesn’t measure body fat percentage as accurately as other methods, however. If you have concerns about body fat, or need a precise measurement, it might be worth the financial investment to get a professional assessment.
Imaging techniques used to diagnose health problems -- X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) -- can be used to determine body fat percentage at a doctor's office or clinic. Specialized X-rays called dual energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA, accurately determine fat mass, fat-free mass and bone density, if that’s a concern. The most accurate methods -- CT and MRI -- use X-rays and radio waves, respectively, to measure specific areas of fat, such as abdominal fat.
Some professionals rely on underwater weighing or air displacement to calculate fat percentage. In one, you’re submerged in water and weighed, allowing experts to calculate body fat percentage. In the other, you sit in a small chamber where body density is determined by comparing the air pressure differences between the empty and full chamber, allowing body fat calculation.