Female body fat percentage can be mystifying.
When it comes to female body fat percentage, the truth can be shrouded in misinformation.
Before we even get started, let’s clarify: what is body fat percentage?
When we discuss body fat percentage, we’re actually talking about the larger concept of “body composition.” This metric goes beyond scale weight, and instead asks the question, “What is your scale weight made of? What are we measuring here?”
Body fat percentage simply measures what percentage of your scale weight is fat compared to lean body mass. Your body composition is defined by that ratio.
When it comes to female body fat percentage, you may have questions like this:
- What is my actual body fat percentage, and how do I calculate it?
- How do I reach a body fat percentage that’s ideal for me?
- What’s realistic in terms of body fat percentage?
You can trust me as you explore each of these topics with me that I am not only a science- and evidence-based personal trainer, but also someone who deeply believes that every individual has her own sweet spot when it comes to body composition. This is not about getting to the “right number” – it’s about discovering what may be right for you.
So let’s jump in!
How do I accurately calculate my own body fat percentage?
This is very important, because I see many clients falling prey to high-tech gadgets in local gyms. If you’re using a handheld device or a scale to tell you your body fat percentage, the great likelihood is that the number you’re getting is wrong.
These kinds of gadgets can get thrown off by water content in your body, and – in my opinion – they’re not much more than glorified BMI calculators.
You can also use calipers, but they tend to be subject to user error – if the person measuring you doesn’t grab enough skin, for example. It’s also uncomfortable.
So what do I recommend?
There are two ways that you can get your body fat percentage measured effectively. One is expensive and labor-intensive, and the other is free and easy (and still pretty accurate).
The first option is to get a DEXA scan – just Google “DEXA scan near me,” and see what comes up. It’s likely that a research hospital or university near you offers the service and you can make an appointment. The great thing about a DEXA scan is that you can also get your bone density measured, which is a great metric for women to know!
If you want to go high tech with a lot of accuracy and interesting feedback, get the DEXA scan. It’s worth it. It’s not perfect (because no method of measurement is), but it’s a good tool to use every six months or so.
Body Fat Percentage Calculator
But if you want to do it at home with minimal effort, using a combination of height, weight, and measurements really works. This is what I do for myself personally!
To calculate female body fat percentage, you’ll need your height and weight, and measurements of your neck, waist, and hips. Then use this calculator to punch in the numbers. Use the absolute smallest part of your waist and widest part of your butt.
What I like about calculators like this is that they take fitness and build into account, not just weight. They can use your measurements to estimate the difference between muscle and fat – just by how your body is proportioned. All you need is a measuring tape and an accurate weight (first thing in the morning, after bathroom, before eating/drinking). Don’t do weight or measurements at random times of day.
What are the implications for health?
While weight gives us an important but limited view into health metrics (which is why I hate that doctors’ offices mainly use BMI), female body fat percentage can give us a lot of information about health.
If you’re a petite person carrying a lot of abdominal fat, for example, this is obviously much less healthy than carrying a lot of weight in your hips with a proportionately smaller waist. And this is information the scale can’t give you!
If you really want to use body fat percentage metrics to help you improve your health, the best thing you can do is pay attention to the role your measurements play in your body fat percentage.
This is important because these measurements can help you calculate approximately how much muscle mass you have, vs. how much fat mass.
For someone who wants to get leaner for health, the key is to watch muscle mass increase as fat mass decreases.
Let’s say you’re 5’4″ and 145 pounds. If you calculate your BMI, you’re borderline overweight at 24.9 (25 starts the “overweight” category for BMI).
But adding measurements into the mix can help you see where you really lie in terms of health.
If you have a 13-inch neck but your waist is 29 inches and your hips are 38 inches, your BMI is 24.9, and your body fat percentage is 28%. Body fat percentage doesn’t use 25 as the cutoff line for overweight (as does BMI) – you can hit 31% by some conservative estimates, or even 33-36% (depending on your age) before you’re considered overweight. So at 28%, you’re starting to approach the higher end, but you’re fine!
On the flip side, if you have the same neck measurement (i.e. build) but your waist is 27 inches and your hips are 37 inches, then your body fat percentage is 24%. In other words, just losing a few inches without losing any scale weight takes you from 28% to 24%, which means you’re not only healthy but very fit, because you’ve replaced 6 pounds of fat weight with muscle weight.
And I probably don’t have to explain to you that – unless you become too lean, which we’ll talk about, too – having a higher proportion of muscle to fat is good for your health.
Fat is an endocrinologically active tissue – it’s not just sitting there. It’s helping to communicate to your body how much of certain hormones and substances to produce.
At some levels, this is a good thing, because having sufficient body fat helps to regulate hormone production, encourage fertility and regular menstrual cycles, and boost brain health. You don’t definitely don’t want to get too low, which – by a conservative definition – could be less than 21% for women.
But when the proportion of fat becomes excessive (over 31% for most women), you not only become more predisposed to metabolic issues like Type 2 diabetes and hypertension – the fat cells also can send signals to your endocrine system to over-produce estrogen and increase markers of inflammation throughout the body. This affects your reproductive health (including raising your risk for breast cancer) and also can make chronic inflammatory conditions – like rheumatoid arthritis, for example – worse. The everyday effect may be that your periods are harder to regulate – they may be too heavy or painful, or they may become irregular.
For general good health, I would strongly advise aiming for a number in the 21-31% range.
Whether you are comfortable at the lower end of that spectrum or the higher end comes down to genetics and lifestyle.
Consider: what do you have to do to achieve a certain number? Is that lifestyle sustainable? How does that number affect your health? All things being equal (assuming you’re healthy anywhere in that spectrum), do you enjoy being at that number, and is it worth the trade-offs that you have to make in terms of nutrition?
These are important questions to ask as we take a look at the next question.
How do I reach a body fat percentage that’s ideal for me?
This answer is going to be short and boring, because there are only a few concepts that rise to the surface:
- Consistent management of nutrition and eating habits (like using the recipes I’ve created for my clients, which you can download for free)
- Consistent strength training
- Daily activity/movement
- Eating enough protein to support muscle (check out this blog post about how to get enough protein without feeling like you’re eating meat nonstop)
- Self-care (especially sleep)
- Lots of experimentation and patience
Reaching your ideal female body fat percentage is in the “simple but not easy” category.
But trust me: if you keep track of what you’re doing, consistently implement effective nutrition strategies (like increasing your protein and monitoring portions), stay on top of your workouts, and get active outside of formal exercise… you’ll see the results that you want.
We’ve been talking about health. Now let’s talk about image, and what different body fat percentages look like on a person.
To ballpark it…
If you are 26-31% body fat, you are probably healthy and in pretty good shape. At the top end of this scale, you won’t be able to see tons of muscle definition, but at the bottom end, you’ll be approaching a “fit” body composition. The nice thing is that this range doesn’t take a lot of effort to maintain. You’re exercising consistently, but not making tons of sacrifices around food.
If you are 21-25% body fat, you will see some muscle definition and be very trim, lean, and athletic-looking. While this level of body composition does take more attention and focus to maintain, it’s extremely sustainable for a lot of women. It’s just that exercise, sleep, and nutrition goals will often win the battle over takeout or extra drinks with friends.
If you are less than 21% body fat, you will look very lean – magazine cover lean. It’s hard to maintain this body composition, so many women only “lean out” for short periods of time for a photoshoot or event. This is usually the point where you can see super-defined muscles all over. Getting this lean takes so much work that I don’t like to see women striving to maintain it, and to be frank, it’s usually not worth it. We’re talking about a lot of exercise and a lot of sacrifice.
Plus, there are trade-offs in health once body fat percentage starts lowering into the teens and staying there. Bone density can suffer, as well as hormonal health and – frankly – mental health.
But this doesn’t mean that wanting to get leaner is a bad goal. In many cases, it’s a great goal!
Going from 31% body fat to 25% body fat, for example, is almost certainly going to improve every aspect of health, performance, and self-perceived appearance. You’re going to love the way you look in clothes, have more energy, and perform better at the gym. Your risks for chronic disease will also be bound to decrease.
But continuing the downward trend doesn’t confer benefits in a linear way. For example, decreasing from 25% to 19% may look great for a photoshoot, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to love how you feel – your athletic performance may actually suffer.
And – from a mental health point of view – it just gets worse and worse. The lower your body fat percentage drops, the harder your body will fight to hold onto it. This means that you will have to work harder and harder to achieve increasingly insignificant rates of loss, and you often start losing muscle mass, too. Plus, this often involves becoming increasingly restrictive with food intake, which can wreak havoc with your relationship with food and your body.
The reality is that it is realistic and healthy to get leaner for many, many people. But once you hit a certain point, it just becomes harder and harder, and may not be worth it for your lifestyle.
Maybe it is! Maybe you really want to be at 21% body fat, and you’re willing to make the reasonable sacrifices required to maintain that level of leanness. If it works for you, that’s great.
But beware of the “moving finish line” of leanness. In other words, the leaner you get, the leaner lean looks. Once you hit 25%, it’s easy to think that you would be that much happier again if you could hit 21%. Once you hit 21%, you can fall into the trap of thinking the next five pounds would be even better.
Am I thin-shaming women with lower levels of body fat? Definitely not.
I’m a big fan of improving body composition. But at some point, improvement fizzles into obsession and the results stop working for you.
I help women drop what’s not working for them, and find the right lifestyle – the right combination of exercise and nutrition – that actually benefits them as a whole person.
How Do You Decide This For Yourself?
Where does that leave the active woman with a job and a personal life who would like to feel and look her best, against a backdrop of cultural messages about female beauty? Here are a few reminders about how body fat percentage works, why you should stop obsessing, and how to achieve your healthiest level of fitness:
Get off Instagram and other “fitspo”-saturated media. Carefully posed images create an impossible standard. Real women, even very athletic ones, jiggle when they run and have stomach rolls when they bend over. Female athletes and even the most svelte actresses are typically not as lean as the unrealistic ideal that fitspo creates – at least, not all the time. Stop comparing yourself to people.
Build the basics of exercise. Consistency is more important than intensity, considering that most people generally overestimate how much they exercise. Stay away from fad exercises that are extremely high-intensity and don’t give you a chance to recover. Instead, exercise frequently and make sure your workouts include strength training.
Do not crash diet. Crash dieting creates a sense of deprivation and causes women to fail over time. Instead, learn concrete skills for managing your food intake. Maybe calorie and macro counting could be in your toolbox, but you can also listen to your hunger and fullness cues, monitor your portion sizes, and focus on what you do eat instead of what you don’t eat. Small shifts create big changes for a lifetime. Dramatic changes, on the other hand, often end in self-sabotage.
Relax. Be patient. If you are already at a healthy body fat percentage (25%, for example), moving to a lower number in the healthy range is probably a 3-6 month goal. But you will succeed if you are consistent and balanced, especially if you use a proper strength training program that truly changes your physique and not just your weight.
Most importantly, ask yourself WHY you want to be so lean. If you find yourself thinking a lot about your body size and shape, or feeling worried about your weight or body fat when you’re in a healthy range, it’s time for some self-reflection. How do you think you’ll feel when your body fat percentage is lower? What do you think you will accomplish? How will your life be different?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be fit. As someone who has lost (and kept off) a significant amount of unhealthy weight and enjoy being leaner, I am personally aware that living at your optimal weight is priceless. However, the aesthetic motivation behind fitness needs to be kept in perspective with the wider joys and demands of a fully-lived life.
So while you’re applying yourself to your fitness goals, remember not to let your cellulite or jean size stop you from living life to the fullest.