My Experiences With Body Fat Testing

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When it comes to healthy weight – whether it’s to shed the pregnancy pounds, increase fertility, help level out the effects of menopause/PCOS/etc., increase mobility, reduce pain/inflammation or just plain looking good, we can’t stress enough that body fat is the real issue and not the number on the scale. What we have found is that a lot of our patients aren’t sure what healthy body fat is, what their personal body fat percentage is, or how to have their body fat measured.  With that in mind, we have asked a guest blogger to share her experiences having her body fat calculated using a few different methods.

“When I chose to undertake my weight loss journey, I had a goal weight in mind without any real understanding of what that meant. With the help of my doctors I started to realize that the number I needed to be concerned with was my percentage of body fat and not so much the number on the scale. But I had no idea what my body fat percent was, and so I decided to try and find out.

Method 1: BMI Calculator
I found a website, one of several, that asks your height and weight and maybe a few other questions and runs that information through a calculator to give you an approximate estimate of your body fat percentage. This tool can only give a very general guesstimate and the less information it asks for, the less accurate the results are likely to be. This tool doesn’t involve any sort of exam by a medical professional (or anyone) and does not take into consideration your build. For example, a muscular person may end up with the calculator telling them that they are obese since muscle is much heavier than fat is when, in fact, they are a very healthy body fat percentage.
My  given percent: 53.5%

Method 2: Caliper Testing
This technique is one that almost every doctors office, nutritionist, and many gyms offer. If you can’t find some place that offers it, you can purchase the calipers and instructions for relatively cheap. The idea is that multiple areas of the body are pinched and the skin fold is measured in the calipers. After some calculation you come up with an overall percentage of body fat. People who have more weight to lose might find this method inaccurate (especially if skin folds don’t fully fit into the calipers), and – let’s be honest – it involves being in varying states of undress while having someone pinch and pull at your fat. It can be awkward, to say the least. Having said that, it is thought to be one of the more accurate “simple” methods of body composition testing available.
My given percent: 47.8%

Method 3: BIA
If you’ve ever stepped on a scale that measured body fat or held a handheld device to have your percentage done, you have experienced a BIA – or Bioelectric Impedance Analysis style of body fat testing. The testing is totally painless and relatively quick and easy, but it does come with some shortfalls. Because the testing requires you to be well-hydrated to be accurate, if you have had very little to drink that day, or have been sweating there is a chance that your readout will be less accurate. I made sure to go in well hydrated and before a workout for this test.
My given percent: 48.2%

Method 4: Displacement Testing
There are a few different types of displacement testing, some with air and some with water. For this particular test I chose to go with a BodPod air displacement test. This method is considered to be about the best possible testing method with very little margin of error. The air displacement system requires that you wear a swimsuit and just sit in the pod for a few minutes. That’s it. Water displacement tests require you to fully submerge yourself in a specially calibrated water tank. With either one your results are generally considered to be accurate to within about 1%. The down side is that the equipment isn’t something you can just purchase or that most doctors have available. Repeating the testing will require you to make another appointment, pay the cost of testing again; which may be pricey and not covered by your insurance.
My given percent: 43.1%

As you can see, the difference between the methods considered to be the least accurate and the most accurate is more than 10%. I did learn a few things through these trials. Firstly, convenience matters. I had to drive an hour away to find a location with a displacement testing unit. Secondly, comfort matters. I wasn’t too comfortable being pinched and squeezed for the caliper testing or hanging out in a swimsuit in a pod in front of someone. For my particular goal, which is fat loss, I am satisfied with the BIA testing. While it was nowhere near as accurate as some other methods, it was comfortable, inexpensive, can be done at home and easily repeatable. As long as I test consistently using the same method, I will easily be able to track whether or not body fat is being lost.”

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