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How can you track your body fat percentage?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created March 08, 2010 at 7:26 AM

I lost ten pounds over the last eight months following Atkins diet, but was hungry all the time and I am still "skinny fat". During this time I began exercising for the first time in four years--I was barely able to walk around the block and by December I was running 21 miles a week and resistance training twice a week. I have seen slight improvement in muscle tone, but I still have a lot of fat to lose. I was very frustrated by this flabbiness and had been thinking that maybe I was too old to significantly change my body composition.

After stumbling upon the PaNu website, I was amazed at how much I did not know about fat and the role it plays in health. Wow do I feel duped! Since I already did not eat breads, grains or sugar, I decided to eliminate the industrial oils, increase my saturated fat intake, and finally ditch the artificial sweeteners (two weeks and counting). Three pounds gone and no more cravings either--I feel as if I have been snatched back from the brink of an eating disorder!

I keep seeing user posts that say they have gained "x lbs of muscle" or "lost x number of pounds of fat" and I am curious as to how I can track this as well. I am a 38 yo female 5'4" currently weigh 133. I am not concerned with weight loss as much anymore but I definitely need to lose a number of pounds of fat and gain a number of pounds of muscle--I do not want to be "skinny fat" anymore. It would be so motivating to be able to track my progress, and and being an accountant it is in my nature to get all warm and fuzzy over numbers and charts.

I have heard Tanita scales mentioned and have found they range in price from $60-$300 fully loaded. I currently have a ten year old scale that supposedly does body fat measurement but it has consistently said I have 31% body fat even when I weighed 145 lbs and was sedentary last year, so I do not have much faith in it.

I would like to know what my body fat % is at the beginning of my paleo lifestyle journey, as accurate as possible using "at-home" equipment. Since it is time to upgrade my scale anyway, I am asking if anyone has any recommendations on at home methods (electronic scales or otherwise) for tracking body fat percentage.

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on March 09, 2010
at 12:55 AM

Thanks everyone for the kind words! Paleo Dave is right about waist size and training progress being more important. texasleah, I debated whether I should address body image in my post but it was already getting long. I think that a lot of people struggle with this, including me! So maybe the mirror isn't a great suggestion after all. My body image has improved over the past year, though, and I hope yours does, too. Eating Paleo and working out smart (CrossFit and strength training) has helped. Glad to hear you are doing 5ks for fun! Just think how far you've come to be able to say that!

D67e7b481854b02110d5a5b21d6789b1

(4111)

on March 08, 2010
at 09:38 PM

Jae, thanks for a great analysis. I see how an accurate fat% might not be attainable(at home or in a lab)but a consistent trend is all I should watch. I am fighting a distorted body image, so I don't think the mirror is a good idea for me so I am going to try the Navy charts. (aside: when I started paleo two weeks ago I dropped the running mileage to one 5K per week but kept the resistance training. I thought I might up the runs after I felt fully keto adapted, but after reading more of what KGH@PaNu says about high mileage, I decided to keep runs minimal-for sanity's sake not cardio.)Thx!

5cd18bfcafadc56292971e59f2f1faf6

(2475)

on March 08, 2010
at 07:19 PM

Great answer! My experience with comparing Tanita scales, Omron scales, calipers, etc. is that "It's just a number" sums it up quite nicely. Things like waist size, strength training progress, etc. are much more reliable indicators.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 08, 2010
at 07:01 PM

Nice answer Jae.

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4 Answers

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14
77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on March 08, 2010
at 04:02 PM

The method of choice seems to be to test all these methods (Tanita scales, calipers, military charts, expensive hydrostatic testing) and use the numbers that are most flattering. :) Depending on which method I use, I may be at 8% or at 14% body fat. Hm....

The truth is, it doesn't really matter what you use. The best and cheapest method is to look in the mirror (and take monthly progress photos!). If you like what you see, you're on the right path.

All methods come with built-in margins of error and are based on (sometimes false) assumptions and generalizations about human bodies. Read Mark Sisson's post about how his BF% came back at a ridiculous 17%. If you look at his photo, you'll see that he's probably closer to around 8%.

Sisson was using the hydrostatic method, the so-called gold standard of bodyfat testing. Why was the number so inaccurate?

when I researched how they actually got the original data they use to estimate body fat, I found that it was largely from autopsies performed in the 1860???s and 1870???s. Not many autopsies have been done for that purpose since. Also, the reference data on skinfold tests and hydrostatic weighing still assumes that as you get older, you automatically lose muscle (regardless of how you eat or how much you work out)

Whatever method you use, you'll get a number. It's just a number! Depending on your body type, age, diet, exercise habits, temperature, skill with calipers, hydration status, the number could be wildly off. Don't worry about the number too much.

Now, any method is useful for keeping track of TRENDS in your body fat. If you see that number increasing every few months, it's probably not a good sign. If, on the other hand, your number consistently creeps down, then you're probably on the right track.

So, my recommendation is, go cheap. Use the mirror. Or a measuring tape and the Navy charts. Or a $6 pair of calipers. But don't stress about the number too much. Just use the number to track your progress over time.

As an aside: if you want to lose fat and stop being skinny fat, my recommendation would be to run a LOT less but start incorporating more resistance training and a bit of sprinting. 21 miles per week is probably way too much for you and will probably discourage fat loss at the expense of muscle loss. (Great job on getting to 3 miles per day from not being able to run around the block, though! You should be proud of yourself.) You can search PaleoHacks or other sites for advice about this (Google "high-intensity interval training" or "CrossFit" or search Mark Sisson's site for "Primal workouts"). The PaNu site talks about this a bit as well, I think. But start slow and build up over a few weeks, so as not to injure yourself in the process.

5cd18bfcafadc56292971e59f2f1faf6

(2475)

on March 08, 2010
at 07:19 PM

Great answer! My experience with comparing Tanita scales, Omron scales, calipers, etc. is that "It's just a number" sums it up quite nicely. Things like waist size, strength training progress, etc. are much more reliable indicators.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 08, 2010
at 07:01 PM

Nice answer Jae.

D67e7b481854b02110d5a5b21d6789b1

(4111)

on March 08, 2010
at 09:38 PM

Jae, thanks for a great analysis. I see how an accurate fat% might not be attainable(at home or in a lab)but a consistent trend is all I should watch. I am fighting a distorted body image, so I don't think the mirror is a good idea for me so I am going to try the Navy charts. (aside: when I started paleo two weeks ago I dropped the running mileage to one 5K per week but kept the resistance training. I thought I might up the runs after I felt fully keto adapted, but after reading more of what KGH@PaNu says about high mileage, I decided to keep runs minimal-for sanity's sake not cardio.)Thx!

77732bf6bf2b8a360f523ef87c3b7523

(6157)

on March 09, 2010
at 12:55 AM

Thanks everyone for the kind words! Paleo Dave is right about waist size and training progress being more important. texasleah, I debated whether I should address body image in my post but it was already getting long. I think that a lot of people struggle with this, including me! So maybe the mirror isn't a great suggestion after all. My body image has improved over the past year, though, and I hope yours does, too. Eating Paleo and working out smart (CrossFit and strength training) has helped. Glad to hear you are doing 5ks for fun! Just think how far you've come to be able to say that!

2
6f0efd477208f51d145bea6d7272256e

(627)

on March 08, 2010
at 04:43 PM

I use the Omron HBF-306 Body Fat Analyzer. I like it well enough. I use it once a week right before my BBS-styled workout. Cost is reasonable, operation is fairly simple.

1
7bea72ef073e8f76b5828727f1460900

(2718)

on March 08, 2010
at 07:41 AM

You can try the The U.S. Navy Circumference Method using various on-line calculators such as this one. It just requires you to measure your height and circumferences for your neck, abdomen, and the hip.

0
5ebeec76e20738d0a17cd724d64b1e0f

on March 08, 2010
at 08:20 AM

I looked into getting a fancy scale some time ago, and from what I recall at the time, a fat caliper is still considered one of the best, easiest and also least expensive solutions to measuring body fat.

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