The Healthy Executive

How Fat Are You…Really?

Which camp do you fall into?

  1. Gaining weight but you DON’T want to know how bad things really are.
  2. Trying to lose weight but you WONDER how you are progressing.

I used to be in Camp #1.

For a long time I put off facing the fact I was 50+ lbs overweight. I blamed it on business stresses.

Until one day I finally got sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

The really stupid part?

Being 50 lbs overweight was self-inflicted physical and mental stress.

Taking action seemed painful, but I was already in pain and I wanted it to stop.

Crucial success factors in losing 50 lbs fat and reducing my stress were:

  • being honest with myself and,
  • knowing where I stood

Below I share 11 different ways I moved into Camp #2, plus my tips on what works best.

Eleven Body Fat Measurements I’ve Tried

I’ve tried all sorts of methods of tracking fat loss progress (and guarding against fat gain).

Here is a roundup of the various methods I’ve experimented with.

These are ranked from simple and cheap to more complex and time consuming:

    1. Your Belt

      • Every time you put on your pants, you get real-time feedback on your stomach fat situation.
        • Letting your belt out a notch due to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner bloat is acceptable.
        • Punching a new hole in your belt to make it bigger is never a good sign.
      • You can actually translate your waist size into your percentage body fat with some simple tools:
      • Tip: 
        • Measure yourself at same time of day. My recommendation is first thing in the morning, post-dump and pre-coffee.
        • Waist and weight figures typically go up throughout the day by 1-2″ and 3-5 lbs.
      • Tip:
        • Buy a “tailors tape”.
        • These flexible tape measures are inexpensive (cost $1) and handy.
        • I keep one at home, one at the office, and one in my travel bag.
      • Tip:
        • If possible, use one of the methods below or seek out someone with considerable expertise at measuring bodyfat, and cross-check your current bodyfat percentage.
          • Then compare that to the reading you get using your tape measure.
          • You will get an idea of whether or not you are over- or under-calculating your bodyfat count.
        • But more important than whether your particular technique produces accurate absolute measurements, is the consistency of your technique and the changes in your relative measurements and percentages over time.
    2. Friends and Family
      • When you are gaining weight, your family (partner, parents, kids) usually tell you first, because they are concerned about your well-being.
      • When you are losing weight, colleagues at the office will compliment you to curry brownie points (especially if you are the boss).
      • Fun Fact:
        • The human face has thinner skin and less fat that other parts of the body.
        • This is why people are able to comment on your weight loss early on:
          • They see it on your face, often before you see it on the scales.
    3. Eyeball Estimation
      1. Using the picture guide below is only ballpark accurate and requires self-honesty (or a partner).
      2. Further on below, I talk about what bodyfat percentages are reasonable targets.

    4. Scales
      • Scales measure total body weight, not just fat alone. This can complicate fat-loss tracking:
        • If you are gaining muscle and losing fat, its possible the scales will show no change or even go up.
        • Eating salty foods (pizza, BBQ) can easily cause 2 lbs (1kg) of temporary water gain.
      • Tip:
        • Keep your scale in the bathroom where it is easy to use in the morning.
        • If you keep it elsewhere in the house, you are far less likely to use it consistently.
        • Many of my clients use “WiFi-enabled” scales that automatically report their weight.
          • (As a health coach I monitor client measures daily).
      • Tip:
        • If I had to pick only one method, hands-down I would pick a tape measure over scales. However, used together they provide a more complete body composition picture.
      • Tip:
        • Smartphone apps like “Happy Scale” do a nice job reporting your weight trends by smoothing the variability inherent individual scale readings.
    5. Fat Pants
      • Most guys I know would never admit to owning “fat pants”. Sweat pants maybe, and “athletic wear” (aka track-suits) for sure.
      • If you are shopping for new clothes in larger sizes, its pretty much a sign that your body fat is increasing. Enough said.
    6.  Skinfold Calipers
      • A simple method of measuring body fat, consumer-grade calipers run about $20 (avoid the medical grade versions that are significantly more expensive).
      • Using at least three spots on your body – chests, abs and thigh are typical – pinch the skin and measure the fold with the calipers.
      • You then plug those numbers into an online calculator which will give you your body fat percentage.
    7. Wedding Suit
      • Most guys I know (myself included) hate wearing suits & ties to formal occasions like weddings. Often we have a suit or formal shirt we might only wear two three times a year.
      • Because several months can elapse between special occasions, wearing these clothes can give us meaningful feedback.
      • In the ideal scenario, our jacket will fit tighter (more muscle) and the pants will fit looser (less fat).

    8. DEXA Scan

      • Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) uses imaging technology to determine the weights of the bone mass, lean mass and fat tissue mass present in the body.
      • Sometimes touted as the “gold standard” of body measurement, the DEXA report requires some intepretation (see Methodology Discrepancies discussion below).
    9. Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis

      • BIA uses electrical impedance to estimate body water and body fat.
      • I tried a Pro-grade version called InBody Scan.
      • These machines are finding their way into higher end health clubs as well as mobile health clinics.
      • Tip:
        • In my experience, home versions of BIA scales (i.e. Omron) are fairly inaccurate and are particularly sensitive to skin moisture.
        • For better measurements, I find it helps to use them just after showering when skin moisture is more consistent.

    10. Underwater Weighing 
      • Body density (and fat) can be determined by completely submerging a person in water and calculating the volume of the displaced water from the weight of the displaced water.
      • Usually this requires a trip to specialized facility or medical center, although mobile clinics do exist.
      • I’ve found this method to reasonably accurate but because of the expense and inconvenience, it is not suitable for ongoing measurements.
    11. Holographic Scanning
      • 3D or holographic scanning (such as Fit3D) is becoming more popular and can be fun way to visually see where you are gaining muscle and losing fat over time.
      •  While it does a nice job of comparing your body shape to the general population, it does not calculate individual body fat.
    12. Other Methods
      • There are couple of other methods I haven’t tried such as ultrasound, infrared, and next-gen BIA tools such as Skulpt.
      • My main problem with these is that they only do “spot” measurements on isolated parts of the body.
      • While it is possible to measure various body segments individually and aggregate them, it’s too much time and hassle, for me at least.
      • I guess you could simplify just monitor one spot like stomach fat…but I can do that for $1 using a tape measure.

To Summarize

Yes, you can buy and use very expensive machines to determine bodyfat percentages, but waist measurement does the same job easier, quicker, and cheaper.

How Fat Should You Be?

Many of my clients approach me because they can literally feel their excess weight increasing their fatigue decreasing their energy and productivity.

Body Fat Percentage Ranges For Men By Age Group

Rating 20-39 Years 40-59 Years 60-79 Years
Low < 8% < 11% < 13%
Healthy 8-20% 11-22% 13-25%
Raised 20-25% 22-28% 25-30%
High > 25% > 28% > 30%

The table below from the American Council on Exercise shows average body fat percentages grouped by category and sex:

Description Women Men
Essential fat 10–13% 2–5%
Athletes 14–20% 6–13%
Fitness 21–24% 14-17%
Average 25–31% 18-24%
Obese 32% and higher 25% and higher

Here is actual survey data of body fat averages grouped by age and sex:

What About BMI?

Body-Mass Index (BMI) was invented in the 1800s for use in population studies. It was/is used in epidemiology research to “normalize” data sets.

BMI doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle, does not work well for children, athletes, and underestimates the threat for people who are “skinny fat,” (those who tend to be fit, but have big bellies).

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “does not recommend that doctors — or anyone else, for that matter — use BMI as a diagnostic tool”.

Here are two more effective methods:

  1. Look at your hip to waist ratio.
    • If your waist is bigger than your hips, the risk associated with that fat is much higher for premature death.
  2. Alternatively, measure your circumference at your belly button.
    • If your waist circumference is half your height or less, you are at a healthy fat level.
    • If you are over that number, your fat could put you at risk for ill health.
    • Example
      • My ratio is 0.45 according to a both $1 tape measure and a $99 3D body scan:

Why Measure Your Fat Ass?

For both myself and my clients, regularly assessing and measuring fat loss has been one of two critical success factors (the other is nutrition logging).

Having a healthy body fat percentage can reduce the risk of numerous medical conditions.

An elevated body fat percentage has proven links to higher cholesterol levels and raised blood pressure, which are both factors that increase the chance of having a stroke or suffering from heart disease.

As well as being linked to some types of cancer and diabetes, a higher body fat percentage can cause erectile dysfunction in men.

Healthy Executive Measure Girl

Discrepancies In Fat Methodologies

As much as I like experimenting, over time I’ve learned best course of action is to pick one method of measurement and use it consistently.

Different measuring techniques can produce different results, and sorting these out can be chore, albeit an interesting one. The technical reasons have to do with “compartmenting”, that is, the manner in which the different measurement algorithms attribute and report various masses. For example, most methodologies include the weight of internal organs and bones as part of lean muscle mass.

Here is an example using my personal data.

You can see there are wide variations in lean muscle mass and body fat:

Original Measurements

The first table shows my measurements as originally reported by the different methods.

MethodLean Muscle MassBody Fat (lbs)Body Fat (%)Notes
Tape Measure ^1140.7 lbs26.8 lbs16 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous + Intramuscular
Calipers ^2154.8 lbs13.8 lbs8.2 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous only
InBody Scan 127.3 lbs18.5 lbs11.1 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous + Visceral
Dexa Scan141.7 lbs
(134.5 lean tissue + 7.2 lbs bones)
29.1 lbs17.0%Body Fat = Subcutaneous + Intramuscular

Footnote ^1: Army/DoD waist measure model
Footnote ^2: Jackson-Pollock 3-point caliper method

Adjusted Measurements

In this table, I adjusted my lean muscle mass to include intramuscular fat, as this fat is part and parcel of the actual physical muscle structure.

The remaining fat is the fat that sits underneath the skin on top of the muscle (subcutaneous).

As you can see, once these figures are adjusted for the differences in how fat is ‘compartmented’, the figures are in relative agreement:

MethodLean Muscle MassBody Fat (lbs)Body Fat (%)Notes
Tape Measure154.1 lbs13.4 lbs8 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous minus Intramuscular
Calipers 154.8 lbs13.8 lbs8.2 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous only
InBody Scan 152.0 lbs
(adjusted, see ^3)
15.5 lbs9.3 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous minus Visercal
Dexa Scan156.3 lbs14.6 lbs8.5 %Body Fat = Subcutaneous minus Intramuscular

Footnote ^ 3: InBody lean mass adjusted to be total body weight minus Segmental (non-Visceral) fat.

Special Thanks

I wanted to thank two people for their measurement expertise and helpful advice:

  • Tammy Patrick, Owner at DexaFit, Los Vegas NV
  • Darla Dee Gentry, Master Advisor at Desert Sports & Fitness, Tucson AZ




Also published on Medium.

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