In our post, Progress: Beyond the Scale, we highlighted some additional ways for you to assess your progress, beyond what the scale is telling you.   One such assessment, body fat % estimate, will be detailed in this post.  The keyword is “estimate”.   Regardless of what body fat % method you use, there will always be a margin of error that needs to be considered.  However, a body fat % estimate can be a valuable tool.

Body fat % is a quantifiable way of measuring your progress.  It also provides more detail, compared to your scale weight.  While the scale only tells you your bodyweight, a body fat % estimate is able to break down bodyweight into “fat mass” and “lean mass” components.   “Fat mass” includes essential fat, which is needed for basic life functions, as well stored body fat, known as adipose tissue.  “Lean mass” includes pretty much everything else:  muscle tissue, bones, organs, water.

When we attempt to lose “weight”, what we really mean is lose “fat”.  A scale cannot provide that detail.  However, getting an estimate of your body fat % can.  It’s a big reason why we track our clients’ body fat % monthly.  Ideally, body fat will decrease as lean mass stays the same (or, potentially, increases).  In this way, we’re able to get a better view of our clients’ progress.

So, how are you able to get a body fat % estimate?   Here are 4 popular methods, each with their own pros and cons:

  • Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) – Sound fancy, but it’s probably the one you’re most familiar with.   If your household scale has a body fat % function, it utilizes this method.   They are also available in a handheld form.   These devices use an electric current to estimate your body fat %.
    • Pros:   Inexpensive, Convenient, Easy to use
    • Cons:  Accuracy issues due to effects of hydration levels, when/what you last ate, if/when you last exercised, skin temperature, or alcohol consumption
  • Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) – Uses low energy x-rays to estimate body fat.  In addition to estimating fat mass, DEXA is also able to further break down the lean mass component into “bone mineral content” and “bone-free lean mass”.
    • Pros:  Considered “gold standard” as far as accuracy, Able to tell you where fat is located around the body
    • Cons: Exposure to low levels of radiation, Expensive, Usually only available in a clinical or laboratory setting
  • “Bod Pod” – By sitting in an egg-shaped device, this method uses air displacement to measure body density, and provide an estimate of body fat.  You can learn more about the device here:  Bod Pod
    • Pros:  Accurate, Non-invasive
    • Cons:  Expensive, Usually only available in a clinical or laboratory setting
  • Skin Calipers – This is the method we utilize with our clients.  The calipers are used to measure the thickness of folds of skin at various sites of the body.  The measurements are plugged into an equation to estimate body fat.
    • Pros:  Inexpensive, Convenient, Skinfold measurements provide progress tracking in and of themselves
    • Cons:  Accuracy is highly dependent upon the person conducting the measurements and can also be an issue with highly obese individuals, Getting your skin pinched may be considered invasive by some.

It’s worth mentioning again that all these methods have a margin of error in estimating body fat %.   Therefore, we take much less stock in the actual % itself and, instead, focus on how the % tracks over time.   If our client’s body fat % is consisting decreasing and their lean mass is remaining constant, we know that progress is being made.  At the end of the day, body fat % estimates are just one tool in our toolbox to assess progress.   The way we see it, the more ways you can use to track your progress, the better.  It will give you a more accurate snapshot on how things are going for you.