What Does My Body Fat Percentage Mean? Here's What You Need to Know

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POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim
POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim

When it comes to tracking your overall health and fitness, there are so many numbers to worry about: your weight, your waist circumference, your body mass index (BMI), and your body fat percentage. Although some of these aren't as accurate as others — your weight doesn't tell the whole story and your BMI isn't the best indicator of overall health — body fat percentage is pretty accurate. But what exactly does it mean?

Your body fat percentage is "how much adipose tissue or fat you have relative to your weight," Rusha Modi, MD, MPH, and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, told POPSUGAR. While most people want to lose fat when they lose weight, some body fat is essential for body function, to insulate your organs, and for energy storage. Women should have more body fat than men for menstruation and reproductive health.

Although there are several ways to determine your body fat percentage, the most accurate ways are underwater densitometry (or hydrostatic weighing), air displacement plethysmography (as performed by a BOD POD), or a DEXA scan, explained personal trainer and dietitian Jim White, RD, ACSM, and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios.

Once you have your body fat percentage, you can determine what that means for your overall health and fitness level. According to the ACE Body Fat Percentage Chart, your body fat percentages are:

Essential fat: 10-13 percent for women, two to five percent for men

Athletes: 14-20 percent for women, six to 13 percent for men

Fitness: 21-24 percent for women, 14-17 percent for men

Average: 25-31 percent for women, 18-24 percent for men

Obese: 32 percent or more for women, 25 percent or more for men

It your body fat falls in the obese range, that could potentially be harmful for your overall health. "Excess body fat can lead to obesity, which is one predictor that has been known to cause heart disease, cancer and stroke, which are the leading diseases in the US," Jim said.

However, you can lower your body fat percentage through exercise (a mix of strength training and cardio) and eating lean proteins, good fats, and a variety of vegetables. In general, it's best to speak to a professional, such as a doctor or registered dietitian, to help assess your body fat percentage, calculate if you need to lower it , and determine what a healthy range is for you.