Decoding the Ideal Body Fat Percentage for Men and Women

Mehak Shah

May 6, 2022

Obesity has become one of the most prevalent health issues worldwide. A study suggests that the number of overweight people exceeds the number of underweight people for the first time in the history of humankind. Another global study shows that no country has reduced obesity rates in the last three decades. This study also projects that obesity rates may increase continuously as the rise in income of low and middle-income countries. However, most of these studies consider the BMI calculation methods to identify these numbers.

It is also true that several limitations in the BMI calculation process question the accuracy of the results. That is primarily because the BMI method underestimates the composition of the body including body fat percentage which can be a greater threat to your health. Therefore, Harvard health says that the fat percentage is a bigger area of concern than body weight. Studies suggest that morbidity and downstream diseases associated with obesity are consequences of excess adiposity (fat). These diseases include metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and most non-infectious chronic diseases. 

While obesity is a reversible and preventable condition, knowing how much body fat is essential for a human being to lead a healthy life.

In today’s world, many of us are making a conscious effort to improve health and fitness levels, to prevent obesity conditions. However, it is necessary to know about the factors that gauge the level of fitness. Most of us determine the state of our health based on our body weight and BMI. But, since body fat (adiposity) is a significant concern to your health, it is essential to use it as one of the primary tools for gauging your fitness levels.

Body Fat: Types and Their Effects on Your Body

Body fat is the accumulated fat tissues present in the body. Although our bodies require some fat to function normally, an excess of it can harm our health. 

Brown Fat

It is a type of fat tissue found primarily in infants and is responsible for keeping them warm. On the other hand, adults retain only a small amount, mainly in the shoulder and neck region. Brown fat is responsible for burning fatty acids to keep you warm. Studies suggest that brown fat can act as protective fat, and unlike white fat, it can help burn energy and prevent the risk of various obesity-related issues. However, the subject requires more research to determine the positive health effect of brown fat conclusively.

Beige (Brite) Fat

Beige fat tissues are in the middle of brown and white fat tissues. They assist in fat burning rather than fat storage. Furthermore, the researchers believe that hormones and enzymes released when a person is worried, cold, or exercising can aid in converting white fat to beige fat. It may help to prevent obesity and maintain a healthy body fat percentage.

White Fat

It is the most common fat that people think about when thinking of body fat. Large, white cells stored under the skin or around the organs in the belly, buttocks, thighs and arms make up white fat. These fat cells store energy for later use. As per ACE, a healthy range of fats for non-athletic men is 14-24%. At the same time, the average fat percentage for women is 21-31%.

Visceral Fat (Abdominal Fat)

Visceral fat or active fat is the fat stored in an individual’s abdominal cavity. Since visceral fat is present in the abdominal cavity, it is close to several organs like the pancreas, intestine and liver. Hence, an excess of visceral fat can have potentially dangerous health consequences. For example, the more visceral fat your body stores, the higher the risk of heart health issues and type-2 diabetes.

Visceral fat accumulates in the intra-abdominal space. Adipose tissues are fat cells stored in your body. When these fatty tissues get stored in and around the belly area, the belly bulges out. Likewise, it is when visceral fat accumulation starts to take place. When visceral fat gets stored in the belly area, the body’s shape is known as an apple-shaped body or android obesity. As per studies, although some amount of visceral fat is necessary, an excess can be hazardous. High Visceral fat accumulation can lead to:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Stroke
  • Hormonal Imbalance
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Kidney Issues
  • Hepatitis and other Liver Issues
  • Some Cancers

Essential Fat

As the name suggests, essential fat is necessary for your body’s health and regular activities. You have essential fat stored in: 

  • Bone Marrow
  • Brain
  • Nerves
  • Membranes (that protect your organs)

Essential fat regulates your hormones, including hormones that promote reproduction. In addition, they help absorb nutrition and regulate body temperature. As per the American Council on Exercise (ACE), essential fat should make up 2 to 5% of a healthy adult man’s body composition, while essential fat should make up at least 10% to 13% of a woman’s body composition to maintain optimum health.

Subcutaneous Fat

It is the fat primarily stored beneath the skin, a mix of brown, white and beige fat (adipose) tissues. It makes the majority of your body fat (approximately 90%). Healthcare and fitness professionals use callipers to measure subcutaneous fat to estimate total body fat percentage. Subcutaneous fat is natural and healthful in adequate amounts. However, too much might cause hormonal imbalance and sensitivity.

Does Body Fat Percentage Matter?

Body fat percentage is the percentage of total body fat. It comprises body fat in proportion to lean mass, organs, tissues, and water. It is a better indicator of physical fitness and wellness and  is an absolute measure to verify the risk of weight-related diseases. This is necessary to analyse excessive adipose tissue accumulation to prevent the progression of metabolic diseases.

Since your body weight includes bone weight, muscle weight, fat composition etc., it is difficult to assess the health risks using standard methods like BMI. Since several studies show that the most significant threat to obesity-related health issues is the excess fat deposition (especially visceral fat), assessing it is imperative.

Research also suggests using BMI values to assess your body fat percentage. However, despite the methods that you use to assess it, it is proven that high body fat levels increase the risk of developing chronic metabolic conditions. 

According to the Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention, obesity is associated with an increased morbidity and mortality rate. However, having low body fat levels also causes various health issues, as insufficient body fat may hamper body functions. Low body fat levels can cause malnutrition, interfere with glucose metabolism, and prevent absorption of nutrients and energy storage. Hence, it is essential to assess your body fat percentage and maintain an optimum level.

BMI and Body Fat Percentage: A Comparison

Body Mass Index (BMI) is an index of weight for height that people use to determine the effect of weight on an individual’s health status. You can get the BMI values by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters (kg/m2). 

Studies show that although BMI is a good factor in analysing the overall fitness of many people, it is not an accurate measure for determining the health status and health risks of an individual. That is because BMI doesn’t evaluate one’s body composition. In addition, it does not distinguish fat from muscle and tissue. For example, a person with high muscle mass may have a high BMI to fall under the obese category. However, it does not mean that the person is unhealthy because most weight is muscle weight. 

It was one of the main reasons researchers were more inclined toward body fat percentage, as every individual has different body fat composition. A study has shown that body fat percentage might better indicate the risk of metabolic disorders associated with overweight or obesity. Therefore, body fat assessment is more specific to calculating actual fat content.

How much fat is, okay?

Now that it is clear that body fat percentage is a better way to assess the health risks of unhealthy body composition, we should also remember that our bodies require some amount of fats to function. Hence, it is essential to maintain optimum body fat. It includes both essential fat and stored fat. The ideal body fat percentage varies as per age, gender etc. However, as per the American Council of Exercise (ACE), the following is the ideal body percentage that you should have.

Essential fat10-12%2-4%
Obese32% or more26% or more

Ideal Body Percentage of Men and Women

Ideal body fat percentage in men is slightly lower than in women. The percentage of body fat of an individual depends upon gender and age. Ageing increases the adiposity in both males and females. Studies have shown that oestrogen present in females is responsible for regulating fat. Efficient fat storage helps improve fertility, fetal development, and lactation.

As per American Council on Exercise, body fat percentage levels for men and women according to age are as follows.

Age Group (20-29 years):

Dangerously LowUnder 8%Under 14%
Excellent8-10.5%14-16.5 %
Dangerously High>23.2%>27.2%

Age group (30-39 years):

Dangerously LowUnder 8%Under 14%
Dangerously HighOver 25%Over 29.2%

Age Group (40-49 years):

Dangerously LowUnder 8%Under 14%
Dangerously HighOver 26.7%Over 31.3%

Age Group (50-59 years):

Dangerously LowUnder 8%Under 14%
Dangerously HighOver 27.9%Over 34.6%

Age Group (60 and above 60 years):

Dangerously LowUnder 8%Under 14%
Dangerously HighOver 28.5%Over 35.5%

Ways to Assess Body Fat Percentage

Most of us know the BMI calculation methods to assess healthy body weight. However, since it does not consider body fat, it is best to use measures that can help calculate body fat percentage. 

Here are some of the ways to assess your body fat percentage. 

Skin Fold Callipers

Skinfold measurement is an age-old method as they have been in existence for the last 50 years.  Skinfold callipers measure the subcutaneous fat thickness beneath your skin at specific body parts. The techniques usually follow a 3-site measurement or a 7-site measurement. Also, the sites vary for men and women. 

For 3-site measurements for women:

  • Triceps
  • Area above the hip bone
  • Either abdomen or Thigh

For a 7-site measurement for women, you should measure the chest area, area near the armpit and the area beneath the shoulder blade.

For 3-site measurements for men:

  • Chest
  • Abdomen
  • Thigh

You can also measure the chest, triceps and area beneath the scapula. Furthermore, for a 7-site measurement, it is essential to measure the area near the armpit and under the shoulder blade.

Skinfold callipers are easy to use and affordable. Hence, they are the most common methods of measuring your body fat. However, they only measure the subcutaneous fat in your body.

Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DXA)

DXA is a novel method to estimate body fat percentage, composition, and bone mineral density. The X-ray scans use two types of energy, one of them is fat absorbed energy. The technology combines both images to indicate the amount of fat relative to other tissues. It uses both images to calculate overall body composition.

Hydrostatic Weighing

It is also known as underwater weighing. It calculates body fat percentage based on the volume of water displaced when the person is underwater. The average density of pure triglycerides is about 0.9 kg/lit. Though the test is very accurate, it is expensive and is not easily available. Before going underwater, one must expel all the oxygen and go underwater three times.

Air Displacement Plethysmography

It is an accurate and scientifically verified densitometric method used to measure body fat percentage. It provides quick, comfortable, automated, non-invasive, and safe measurement processes and accommodation according to an individual’s age and body type. This is a closed egg shaped in which an individual sits measuring body fat through weight and volume. Though it provides accurate results, it can be costly.


You can use various methods to assess body fat percentage. Some of them are accurate, and some of them would show different results. Hence, it can concern a few whether they should rely on body fat percentage calculators or not. However, you can use body fat percentage as an early indicator that you should work towards achieving a healthy body weight. Almost all the methods that calculate body fat percentage offer a range of healthy and unhealthy body weight. If you fall under the unhealthy category, you should consult an expert nutritionist or health expert to get a customised food and workout plan for you.

As these measurement techniques provide baseline data about the health risks one might suffer from, you shouldn’t just focus on them. Following a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, exercising, strength training, and therapies for mental health or relieving stress should be your primary focus to lead a healthy life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. What should my body fat percentage be for my age?

A: Body fat percentage varies as per age and gender. A healthy body fat percentage for the 20–39-year age group should be 8-19% for men and 21-32% for women. At the same time,  the 40-59-year age group should be 11-21% for men and 23-33% for women. Furthermore, the healthy body fat percentage for the 60-79-year age group should be 13-24%, and for women should be 24-35%.

Q. At what weight will I see abs?

A: Getting abs is not dependent on body weight. It is about fat reduction. So, to get the abs, you would require losing out on the visceral and subcutaneous fat stored in the abdomen region. To do so, you can indulge in some targeted exercises such as crunches suitable for abdominal toning. The American Council of Exercise states that one needs to lower the body fat to about 14-20% for females and 6-13% for males. Even if you have toned rectus abdominis (the muscle that forms abs), if it’s hidden under a layer of fat, abs won’t be visible.

Q. Can I see abs but still fat?

A: Yes, it is possible. You can have strong rectus abdominal muscles that form abs hiding under the subcutaneous fat layer. If the fat range is 6-17% in males and 14-24% in females, their abs should be slightly visible. But as the fat percentage decreases, you can see more defined abs. One needs discipline, clean eating, regular exercise, cardio, and strength training.

Q. How do I lower my body fat percentage?

A: It is always best to seek expert healthcare or nutritionist advice and guidance to plan your fitness regime. They will understand your goals, assess your lifestyle and eating patterns and then suggest you choose a fitness plan. However, the crucial areas you will have to work on are modifying your food plan, indulging in strength training, cardio, etc. In addition, you should avoid eating refined carbs, unhealthy fats, sugary products, and processed foods. Furthermore, you should also reduce stress and focus on getting good sleep.

Q. What body fat percentage do models have?

A: Body fat percentage usually does not depend on the profession. Therefore, most modelling professionals focus on maintaining optimum fat levels. They focus on getting lean muscles through exercise, healthy eating and lifestyle habits. However, some modelling professionals have a very low body fat percentage, which may not always be healthy.

Q. What kills subcutaneous fat?

A: You can only get rid of subcutaneous fat by burning calories through exercise, cardio, and strength training. It is necessary to involve movement-based activities that spike your heart rate, such as running, cycling, walking, and swimming. While regular exercise is essential, you should also focus on eating low-calorie foods, whole grains, fibre, and healthy fat and avoid eating refined, sugary, and processed foods.

About the Author

Mehak holds masters in foods and nutrition from Amity university, Noida. She has a keen interest in public health and nutrition and has been in charge of various projects with milestone NGO. She has worked with people over the globe to bring out the changes in their lives and has always been working towards lifestyle modifications via good dietary practices. According to her a healthy lifestyle is not about the destination but all about the journey.

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