Body Composition—How Much Fat Do I Have?

Most people have used height/weight tables at one time or another. Health professionals often question their effectiveness but understand their basic purpose. These charts help primarily in determining whether a person falls into a healthy weight or not. Most of us like to look at these charts and see where we fall. Personally and professionally I take into account how much body fat a person has. This is a much more accurate measurement that can help you find where you are right now in relation to your healthy weight range.

Everybody needs a certain amount of fat in his or her body for energy sources, heat insulation, shock absorption, and various other vital functions. Women, for the most part, have greater fat stores than men. I know sometimes this doesn’t seem fair but it is what it is. Nevertheless, determining how much body fat a person has is a difficult and somewhat costly process.

Weight Measurement Options

Several options are available, but in order to obtain accurate results, trained professionals and expensive equipment are often necessary. Let’s take a look at some advanced options. Don’t worry—I’ll also provide some simple options that you can do in your own bathroom.

Underwater Weighing.   One of the most effective ways to accurately measure lean muscle versus fat weight is through underwater (hydrostatic) weighing. Underwater weighing takes place by submerging a person in a tank of water about four feet deep as air is forced out of the person’s lungs. After staying underwater for about six to ten seconds, the person’s weight is recorded. This method is based on the principles that people with greater muscle mass weigh more in water than those who do not and that fat floats in water. Therefore, more accurate measures of lean body mass can be recorded underwater. This process is repeated five to ten times. An average is then recorded and calculated according to a special formula to determine the percentage of total fat weight. This method of determining body fat can be costly and is not widely available to most people. You know, I thought I witnessed underwater weighing once while visiting my uncle’s waterfront home—but, to my surprise, it was his neighbor receiving baptism!


There is a theory that our bodies try to stay at a preset weight, called the “set point.” The studies are inconclusive. However, if it exists it’s probably a range, which means you can adjust your “set point” weight with exercise and a healthy diet. No excuses. Get the point?

Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis.   Another fat-measurement method, called “bioelectrical impedance analysis,” is a relatively new and simple method. This process can determine overall body fat by providing a computerized calculation of lean weight, standard weight-range measurements, and percentage of body fat by delivering a harmless, low-voltage electrical current throughout the body.

This method produces an estimate of total body water and of lean muscle mass, which contains water. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, while fat contains very little water and resists the electrical flow. The more body fat a person has, the more resistance there will be to the flow of the electrical current. From this measure of resistance, a percentage of body fat is determined. Again, although this method demonstrates accuracy, it is quite expensive and is not widely available for use by most people. I have done this one and it is really cool. It is, however, not a religious experience. No dunking needed.

Skinfold Measurement Testing.   A simpler, more common measurement of fat in the body can be made through using skinfold calipers. These calipers are the most economical and the easiest tool to use to determine body fat composition. Trained individuals use this special tool to help determine the amount of body fat that lies just beneath the skin. This fat, which is called “subcutaneous fat,” accounts for almost half of the body’s overall fat supply. The process of testing involves taking a skinfold measurement of the thickness at various points of the body including the upper arm, upper back, lower back, abdomen, and thigh. The amount of subcutaneous fat found in these areas helps determine the total amount of fat that can be found throughout the body. This method is widely available at many health and fitness clubs and by physicians and dietitians, and it offers an effective means of proper measurement.


Subcutaneous fat lies just beneath the skin and accounts for approximately half of all the fat in the body. Skinfold measurements of this fat taken on the thigh, upper arm, abdomen, and/or back helps to determine the total amount of fat found throughout the body.

Body Pinch Test.   There are several other options for individuals to seek a quick and easy measurement of their own body fat. One is a simplified method of the skinfold caliper method, known as the body pinch test. You can easily do this yourself. Grasp the skin below the upper arm, halfway between the shoulder and elbow, and again at an inch below the waist. The skin, not the muscle, should be pinched with the thumb and forefinger. Take a measurement of the amount of skin grabbed. If the measurement is greater than an inch, an indication of an excess body fat can be made. The slogan “pinch an inch” was derived from this body pinch test. Yeah, I hate this one too. But if it makes you feel any better, even skinny models don’t have a hard time finding an inch to pinch. Use it to get a quick assessment of excess fat. Perhaps this is something you can do when you have a date with your bathroom scale.

Waist Measurement.   You can also assess your health risk by measuring your waist for the amount of excess fat around your middle, or around the vital organs in the body. A waist measurement of greater than thirty-five inches for women or forty inches for men indicates a risk to overall health status.

New Methods on the Horizon

New methods of determining body fat levels are being researched and developed. Some may require expensive equipment, while others can be found in products similar to the bathroom scale. Hopefully, individuals will have greater access to these testing methods.

Guidelines for Body Fat Determination

Each of these processes provides a person with his or her percentage of body fat. Guidelines established to determine healthy levels based on percentage of body fat are as follows:

Keep in mind that we all need some fat in our bodies to store energy, help with heat insulation, and perform other necessary functions. Women’s bodies contain more fat than men’s bodies do; women also have less muscle and bone than men.

Body Mass Index—Skinny Models versus You

In case you haven’t heard, “skinny” models have been banned in Spain and in other areas of the world. Shocking as it may seem, this is setting a precedent for the whole fashion industry. Perhaps it’s time to realize that a little meat on the bones is healthy. Regardless, I doubt that this will send celebrity anorexia headlines down a bulimic toilet. However, for the first time, the term body mass index (BMI) is being heard regularly in mainstream media and people are listening. Let’s discover how this BMI business made popular by skinny models can help you achieve your goals.

What Is the Body Mass Index?

Developed in 1993 by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders, the BMI uses a mathematical formula and chart designated to correlate body weight and height to overall body fat. Federal guidelines now use the BMI guidelines to define weight groups among Americans. Although BMI figures are not an appropriate weight evaluation tool for everyone, they are more accurate than the original height/weight tables. There are several simple ways in which you can determine your BMI. Following is a formula that you can use to calculate your own BMI.

Calculating Your Own BMI

Body mass index can be determined in a number of ways. Some ways are simpler than others. It is derived from the ratio of body weight in kilograms to height in meters squared. You can determine your own BMI by dividing your weight in pounds by the square of your height in inches, like so:

  1. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.
  2. Divide your height in inches by 39.37 to get your height in meters.
  3. Multiply the number you got in Step 2 (your height in meters) times itself.
  4. Divide the number you got in Step 1 (your weight in kilograms) by the number you got in Step 3 (height in meters times height in meters).

Evaluating Your Results

Once you have calculated that infamous BMI number, check it out with the key found here. This information allows you to see how you fit into the standards established for a healthy weight.

It’s interesting to note that the new skinny model BMI low limit number that caused such a ruckus in Spain is 18. That in itself is underweight according to this key. It is amazing to me how many in the fashion industry consider that fat. A BMI that is too low is not very attractive and certainly unhealthy.

Now it is up to you to step up to the plate. Not just for dinner but to achieve a healthy weight.

  • Underweight status equals a BMI of 19 or below
  • Healthy weight status equals a BMI of 19.1–24.9
  • Overweight status equals a BMI of 25–29.9
  • Obesity status equals a BMI of 30 or higher

Limitations of the Body Mass Index

Whatever your results may be, keep in mind that BMI figures can be limiting in several regards. For example if you are an individual with a really large percentage of muscle mass your measurements may indicate an overweight status. Primarily BMI charts are established for healthy, adult individuals, not children, pregnant women, athletes, or frail elderly persons. These charts are less indicative of weight issues in the younger population groups of children and teens. This information is primarily useful in determining personal health risks.

Each and every person who uses the BMI chart and figures needs to realize that these figures and numbers are only guidelines. These, as well as any height/weight chart you may find and compare to yourself, should not be your only indicator of a weight concern.

Meaning-Less Pounds, Sizes, and Numbers

I have been preaching about pounds, sizes, and numbers for years. In fact, I’ve done my share of obsessing over them, too. There have been times when I felt the pressure of preparing my body to be “camera ready” for a photo shoot or TV interview. It can be tough having your body scrutinized. As a celebrity image consultant I also talk to the “beautiful” people regularly. They can be more insecure than your average Joe Schmo. If there is anything I can share from these real life experiences, it is that pounds, sizes, and numbers are truly meaningless if you don’t feel good about yourself. You must come to terms with the body that you were born with. Accept however tall or short you are and whatever size or shape or metabolism your genetics determine. Try to understand what you can change and what you cannot. Every person is different. Your opinion of yourself stems from how you accept you.

If you have concerns regarding body weight, I encourage you to talk to a health professional. Please do not put yourself down for not falling into a certain number or size that may be unrealistic. A health care professional or health care team can set you in the direction of a healthier lifestyle. Living healthy should be fun and feel good. Get more help if you need it.

We’ve talked a lot about testing our weight. Try to remember that an assessment of a person’s weight is just that: an assessment. Numbers help in determining where you are at any given time so you can set goals. However, weight is only one measurement of health. A thin person may not always be healthier than an overweight person. Many factors contribute to your overall health. You can appear fit on the outside, but are you fit within? As we progress through these pages, I will provide more information on ways for you to build a healthy lifestyle through the foods and activities you choose. Forget about trying to be thin. Becoming healthier should be your main focus. It’s a positive change you really can make that should be fun and make you feel great!

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