Body Composition

What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?

by
Matthew Mace
on
January 28, 2023

Do you fall within the recommended body fat % guidelines? 

Talking about body fat is often considered taboo. 

But it’s a necessary conversation to have. People who carry excess body fat, and especially those who are obese or severely obese, are more likely to suffer increased mortality from diabetes, coronary heart disease, and even cancer [2].

Being underweight is also dangerous—it’s a risk factor for decreased muscle strength, lowered immunity, osteoporosis, tiredness, and even malnutrition. 

Improving your body composition will decrease your risk of mortality, improve your day-to-day well-being, and will increase longevity

In this article, we highlight a range of body fat percentages and explain what is healthy, what can be improved, and what you should avoid.

Fat is essential

Some fat is needed for vital bodily functions.

There are two types of mass: fat mass and lean mass.

Fat mass is found in adipose tissue. It also surrounds the organs, cushions your body and joints, and keeps you warm. Carrying enough fat mass is vital. But carrying excessive fat mass increases health complications. The same applies to carrying too little fat mass—this also increases your risk of mortality [3].

Lean mass, on the other hand, is the total weight of your body from non-fat sources, including muscle, organs, water, and connective tissue. 

People who have too much fat mass and body fat, and especially those considered “obese,” are at an increased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, cancer, osteoarthritis, liver and kidney disease, sleep apnea, depression, and other chronic diseases [4]. 

Achieve an optimal body fat % to improve your well-being and reduce mortality risk.

So, what is a healthy body fat percentage? For men, anywhere between 11-15%, and for females, 21-25% body fat is considered good.

What your body fat % means

Once you have calculated your body fat %, whether using Spren or another body  composition analysis method, you might be wondering how you rank on the body fat % chart.

If you don’t have a way to measure your body fat %, you can use the guide below. Although not the best tool to track progress, it’s a good starting point to at least estimate your body fat %.

Oftentimes when people are skinny, it’s assumed that they are very healthy. But carrying a low percentage of body fat is also dangerous. For example, too low a body mass increases the risk of all-cause mortality [3]. 

You’re also likely to experience a deficiency of fat-soluble vitamins, being underweight may increase your risk of knee osteoarthritis, and more.

The table below shows what your body fat % means:

This chart is just a guide—but it’s a useful tool for analyzing your body composition and body fat %.

Major improvement needed

Obesity is commonly associated with 30% body fat or higher in both men and women [1]. If you fall within this body fat % category, you’re likely at risk of common obesity risks, including diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, liver and kidney disease, and others.

Losing body fat in the “major improvement needed” category is highly recommended. This will reduce your risk of mortality and many other health conditions. 

Improvement needed

At 16-20% body fat for males and 26-30% for females, your medical risks have lowered. But you still may need some medication in later years. Many people are happy within this body fat % range, but some slight tweaks to your lifestyle could help you reach the “good” scale.

Good 

Most people are very happy achieving a “good” body fat %. If you fall into this body fat % bracket, you are considered healthy and are unlikely to need medication later in life to combat weight-related issues.

Although it can be hard to achieve this level of body fat, it’s a lot easier to maintain and more realistic than being very lean. 

Very lean

If you’re very lean, then you’re typically in very good shape. Your abs are visible, you have muscle definition, and you’re likely to be quite vascular. 

This is your usual fitness model or influencer level of body fat.

If your body fat is lower than 6% for males and 16% for women, then it’s often considered unhealthy, is not sustainable, and poses several health risks—more on this below.

Magazine cover/unhealthy

We’ve arrived at the lowest body fat %—this is the category bodybuilders during the competition phase typically strive to achieve. It’s also a percentage many magazine cover photos are taken.

But don’t be fooled; the people may look shredded, however it’s often very unhealthy.

At lower than 6% body fat for males and less than 16% for women, you’re fighting your body's own survival mechanisms. You’re likely to lack energy, get cold easily, have poor stamina, and constantly feel hungry. It’s also likely to have no social life because you’re so focused on maintaining your physique. 

Is getting shredded healthy?

If your new year's resolution is to “get shredded,” we would advise redefining what “shredded” looks like to you. 

Instead of aiming for a body fat percentage of 6% or less for men and 16% for women, we’d suggest aiming for the “very lean” body fat category.  

While getting shredded may look good, it comes with many risks and side effects that are just not worth it.

Use Spren to achieve a healthy body fat %

The best way to improve your body fat % is to routinely analyze your body composition using an accurate method, such as Spren.

Spren uses your smartphone camera, validated machine learning algorithms, and computer vision to provide you with an accurate body composition analysis, including your total body fat %. 

Once you have an initial reading, you can adopt or change healthy lifestyle habits, such as proper nutrition and regular exercise or lifting weights to achieve your desired body fat %.

Start using Spren today to track your progress and achieve a healthy body fat %.

FAQs

What is an unhealthy body fat percentage?

For males, between 16-30% body fat, and for females, 26-40% body fat is typically considered healthy.

At what body fat do abs show?

Abs begin to show at around 10 to 14% body fat. But they are more visible between 6-10%.

Is 15% body fat good?

15% body fat is good for men and lean for women. This is a healthy body fat percentage that many people aim to achieve.

References: 

  1. Gallagher, D., Heymsfield, S.B., Heo, M., Jebb, S.A., Murgatroyd, P.R. and Sakamoto, Y., 2000. Healthy percentage body fat ranges: an approach for developing guidelines based on body mass index. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 72(3), pp.694-701.

  1. Kissebah, A.H., Freedman, D.S. and Peiris, A.N., 1989. Health risks of obesity. Medical Clinics of North America, 73(1), pp.111-138.

  1. Lorem, G.F., Schirmer, H. and Emaus, N., 2017. What is the impact of underweight on self-reported health trajectories and mortality rates: a cohort study. Health and quality of life outcomes, 15(1), pp.1-14.

  1. Pi-Sunyer, X., 2009. The medical risks of obesity. Postgraduate Medicine, 121(6), pp.21-33.

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Matthew Mace

Matthew is a keen cyclist and freelance health and wellness content writer. He studied sport and exercise at Durham University and now writes for numerous active brands. When he's not writing or cycling, he can be found on the edge of his seat watching the Formula One.

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