You may know that calculating your body fat percentage can give you some insight into your overall health and risk for certain diseases. But before you do the math, you may want to know what a healthy range looks like and how that measures up to the average body fat percentage.
Here, we'll look at what's considered ideal when it comes to body fat and how the national averages stack up for men and women.
Read more: You're Losing Weight, but How Much Is Fat?
What's a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
A healthy body fat percentage is somewhat of a moving target. Experts don't generally agree on one "ideal" body fat percentage, or even one "best" range. That's because several factors come into play for any individual.
For one, women need a higher percentage of body fat than men due to breast tissue and the needs of their reproductive systems. Also, older individuals, especially post-menopausal women, generally have higher body fat percentages than younger people of the same sex (and, indeed, need it, as the older we get, the more likely we are to have to withstand illness or a long hospitalization). And professional athletes — and, to a lesser degree, just fit and highly active people — will have more lean muscle and less fat than others of the same age and sex.
All of that said, though, the American College of Sports Medicine, in its ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (Tenth Edition), offers ranges considered "satisfactory" for health.
- Women: 20 to 32 percent
- Men: 18 to 24 percent
OK, So What's the Average Body Fat Percentage?
More than two-thirds of Americans are living with obesity or overweight, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But being overweight doesn't necessarily mean you have an unhealthy amount of fat. In fact, a person can be relatively thin and still have too much body fat.
But when it comes to the national average for body fat percentage, both men and women clock in over the recommended maximum, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics:
- Women: 41 percent
- Men: 28 percent
Calculating Your Body Fat Percentage
There are a few different methods that can help you determine your body fat percentage, some of which are more reliable than others.
"A DEXA scan is the most accurate way to measure body fat," says Dr. Meyer. "This technology uses dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry and is 98 percent accurate." The procedure can be pricey, though, and is generally not covered by insurance.
It is difficult at best to calculate body fat percentage accurately yourself. While there are several formulas out there, they require a high level of calculations that leaves a lot of room for error.
There is an easier way though: You can estimate your body fat percentage by plugging some of your key measurements into LIVESTRONG.com's Body Fat Calculator. Women will need their waist, hip and neck measurements, while men should have their abdomen and neck measurements handy.
Body Fat Percentage vs. BMI
Your body fat percentage is not to be confused with your body mass index, or BMI.
First, the formula for this measurement is much simpler: your weight in kilograms divided by your height in meters, squared.
Although BMI is not a direct measure of body fat, it's often referenced because of its simplicity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a normal BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9, and this range applies to both men and women. Lower than that is underweight, and higher is overweight. A BMI of 30 or more qualifies as living with obesity.
The big drawback when it comes to BMI is that it doesn't distinguish between fat and lean muscle. For this reason, muscular people sometimes have higher BMIs than poorly muscled individuals who weigh less but have more body fat.
"There are those who have a low BMI, yet still have a high body fat percentage," notes Dr. Meyer. "This could pose [health] risks long-term, just as a high BMI would."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Assessing Your Weight"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Overweight & Obesity Statistics"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics: "National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 10th Edition"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adult BMI Calculator
- American Council on Exercise: What Are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?
- American Council on Exercise: Weight Management