It’s Your Body Composition, Not Your Body Weight That Matters!

It’s Your Body Composition, Not Your Body Weight That Matters!
by Monica Mollica ~

In today’s society, characterized by an epidemic prevalence of obesity, weight loss and weight control strategies are in the spotlight. At any given time, a majority of individuals, both men and women, are struggling to lose or at least not gain body weight. However, the inordinate focus on our body weight and what the scales show has detracted attention from the fact that it’s not our body weight per se that is important for health, physical performance and aesthetics, but rather our body composition. This can be illustrated by comparing a 200 lb heavy bodybuilder with a 200 lb couch potato…

While they both have the same body weight, the body builder’s physique is firm and nicely shaped thanks to a greater amount of muscle mass and much less body fat than the average sedentary person’s. This is what body composition is all about. Body composition is the term used to describe the different components that together make up a person’s body weight. The main components, which are the focus of this article, are fat mass (FM) and fat free mass (FMM). Muscle mass is part of the fat free mass, and because it is a component that we can influence ourselves by our exercise training and eating habits, it is especially interesting for anybody who is wants to improve their health and get in shape.

In this article you will learn about the major components that make up your body, and their implications for health and performance. You will also learn about the current cut-off for excess body fat and obesity, and how much body fat you can lose without negatively affecting you health (because too little body fat isn’t healthy either). The article will end with a description of relevant indices you can use to compare and track changes in your body composition in response to exercise and diet.

1. Constituents of the body

Basically, the human body is composed of body fat mass (FM) and fat free mass (FFM). The FFM consist of about 50-57% muscle mass in men and 44-51% muscle mass in women (1-5).

This two-compartment model, which divides the body into FM and FFM, has been the primary one used in the study of the relationship between body composition and physical performance (6). The two-compartment model assumes that there is a fixed proportion of water, protein and mineral in the FFM (7-10). However, bone mineral mass, water mass, and protein mass vary among individuals (11-13), and these constituents are especially influenced by diet and exercise (14-22), sex (22), age (23-27) and genetic factors (14, 28, 29).

This could lead to considerable individual deviations from the average in the percentage of water and bone mineral in FFM, and will consequently influence the calculated body fat content. Because of the variability in FFM and its impact on estimations of body fat, multi-compartment models (i.e. three- and four-compartment models) have lately been introduced (7, 26). In the more complex three- and four-compartment models, the FFM is further subdivided into its major constituents; water, mineral and protein (7-10, 30, 31).

The three-compartment model, which incorporates measures of total body water, greatly increases validity of the body composition estimates by removing errors relating to variability in this compartment, which comprises the largest percentage of the FFM and is furthermore acutely variable (8). The four-compartment model marginally improves on the three-compartment model by additionally controlling for variability in bone mineral (which displays less variability than the total body water component of the FFM) (8). The three- and four-compartment models therefore provide more valid estimates of body composition than the two-compartment model (8).

By using the multi-component model, instead of the two component model, the obtained body composition data has increased accuracy. Even when multi-component models are used, the more accurate data that are obtained are often still expressed in two-components (as in the two-component model), because of the primary interest of laymen, as well as scientists and physicians, is to estimate fatness (the amount of fat that makes up body weight).

Getting a more estimate of the fat mass will in turn give a better estimate of fat free mass (muscle mass), which is also an important health indicator, and an important performance related variable among athletes and coaches. Therefore, this article will focus on fat mass and fat free mass (including muscle mass).

2. Storage versus essential body fat

Obesity is defined as an excess amount of body fat (32-41). With escalating rates of obesity and obesity related disability, morbidity and mortality, and its negative impact on our body’s aesthetics, most of us loathe body fat. However one has to remember that there is a minimum amount of body fat, called essential body fat, which we need in order to survive. Thus, it’s the excess body fat that is detrimental and undesirable.

Women and men differ significantly in relative quantities of the body composition components. Therefore, gender-specific reference standards have been developed to provide a framework for evaluating body composition measurements. The gender-specific reference standards are based on average physical dimensions from thousands of individuals measured in large-scale civilian and military anthropometric (body measurement/dimension) surveys, and data from laboratory studies of tissue composition and structure. The results, which have been summarized as the reference man and reference woman (42), are shown in the following table.

TABLE 1: Body composition of the reference man and reference woman (42,43).

LMB = Lean Body Mass, kg = kilograms, lb = pounds

It should be noted that the body composition of the reference man and woman does not mean than men and women should strive to achieve this body composition, or that the reference man and women reflect some sort of “ideal”. Instead, the reference body composition is useful for comparisons and interpretations of data from studies of different population groups.

As can be seen in table 1 above, the amount of body fat is usually expressed in relation to body weight as percent body fat (%BF). To calculate percent body fat one simply divides the weight of body fat by the total body weight. Other body constituents can also be expressed as a percentage of body weight (as in table 1).

The recommended amounts of body fat are between 10-20% for men and 20-30% for women (44-46). However, later studies have shown that lower amounts of body fat in the middle-age and elderly is associated with lower bone mineral content, which increases the risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures, especially among women (47-54). Therefore some adjustment in body fat standards has been done (55). Table 2 summarizes the revised body fat recommendations taking age into consideration.

TABLE 2: Recommended body fat percentage levels for the general population (54, 55).

It should be emphasized the above recommendations are for the general sedentary population. Physically active individuals, who engage in regular physical activity, are usually leaner. A leaner body increases physical performance in most cases, and thanks to the higher activity level, these individuals tend to be healthier than the average sedentary person. Table 3 gives body fat guidelines for physically active individuals.

TABLE 3: Body fat percentage guidelines for physically active individuals (54, 55).

The greater health hazards associated with excess fatness in men than in women may partly be explained by the fact that women (pre-menopausal) can accumulate more body fat than men of the same age before reaching the amounts of health impairing intra-abdominal adipose tissue (see below) found in men (56).

3. Minimal amount of body fat – your lean body weight

An interesting question is “How little bodyfat can one have without impairing health status or body functions”? This is especially relevant for bodybuilders who strive to shed as much fat as possible to bring out deep muscle striations and veins.

Theoretically, the lowest amount of body fat compatible with health is the essential body fat (57). Thus, your minimal amount of body fat is equivalent to your amount of essential body fat.

To estimate your lean body weight (which includes the essential fat), subtract storage body fat from body weight (56). As you can see in table 1, storage body fat makes up 12% of body weight in the reference man and 15% of body weight in the reference woman. Table 4 shows how to calculate lean body weight, based on the reference values for storage body fat, for a male and a female bodybuilder as an example.

TABLE 4: Sample calculation of lean body weight.

NOTE: To convert between feet, inches and meter, and pounds and kilograms (kg), see table 5 below.

Thus, the lean body weight for our example male bodybuilder is 202 lb (91.9 kg) and 136 lb (61.7 kg) for our example female bodybuilder.

Although the amount of essential body fat in the reference woman is 12% of body weight, female bodybuilders usually compete at lower body fat percentages. However, most of them don’t stay that lean all year around and usually go up to at least 10-12 % body fat during the off-season.

It should be noted that the amount of essential body fat, i.e. the amount of body fat that is compatible with health and necessary for body functions, varies between individuals (58). The values indicated in table 1 above for the reference man and reference woman are just that; references to compare against, and should not be interpreted as any ideals.

4. Health and performance effects of the fat- and fat free mass

While both the fat mass and fat free mass (muscle mass) add to the body’s weight, these two body components have diametrically opposite effects on our health, well being and performance. Muscle mass (and thereby fat free mass) promotes health and increases physical performance (6, 30, 59-71). On the contrary, the body fat mass (when present in excessive amounts) is detrimental to health, well being and performance capability, and increases the risk for physical disability, chronic diseases (especially cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes) and all-cause mortality (6, 59, 60, 72-101).

5. The Misleading Body Mass Index (BMI)

Because it is so pervasive among both laymen and professionals, I want to explain the rationale, assumptions and flaws behind the Body Mass Index (BMI), before we go any further.

BMI is calculated by dividing body weight (in kilogram, kg) by height (in meters, m) squared. Table 5 shows a sample calculation of BMI for a male and a female bodybuilder.

TABLE 5: Sample calculation of BMI.

6. Body Weight versus Body Fat

An important point to remember is that it’s not the degree of excess body weight (as for example measured by BMI), but the excess of body fatness that is important as a risk factor for disease and mortality (40, 180, 182-186). This was already recognized in the 1940s when body composition variations between elite athletes and untrained individuals first were investigated. These early studies showed that it is extreme muscular development (and not body fat) that contributes to athlete’s excess body weight (in relation to body weight standards) (187-189). Thus, overweight does not necessarily coincide with excess amount of body fat.

Therefore the term “overweight”, which is based on arbitrarily set average weigh-for-height standards, should be abandoned since it doesn’t take into consideration what the “overweight” consists of. This is also the reason why one shouldn’t stare too much on the scales before one knows what body constituent it is that adds to the scale readings.

Because FFM (including muscle mass) is denser and weighs more than fat mass, athletes are usually “overweight” but still have less body fat than their peer couch potatoes, which even might fall within the accepted weight-for-height standard! Thus, “overweight” and “overfat” describes different aspects of body composition for physically active men and women.

7. Fat Mass Index and Fat-Free Mass Index

Percent body fat (see above) is often used to quantify the amount of body fat, and assess the relationship between body composition, performance and health. The rationale for dividing fat mass by body weight is that this normalizes fatness for body size. Clearly, larger individuals tend to have greater fat mass (the exception is bodybuilders), so the calculation of percentage body fat is intended to adjust for this trend.

However, the utility of expressing the amount of body fat as a percentage of body weight has been recently challenged, because it ignores between subject (inter-individual) variations in fat free mass (177). Individuals will differ in percentage fat either if they have identical fat-free mass but different fat mass, or if they have identical fat mass but different fat-free mass. Since percentage body fat is influenced by the relative amount of fat free tissue in body weight, it is not an independent index of body fatness (190). In a situation (for example crash dieting) when a person is losing body weight without changing his/her relative body fat (i.e. the weight loss consists of the same proportion of body fat as contained initially in his/her body), the body fat percentage will stay the same even though body weight has dropped.

The same holds true for the expression of fat free mass. Height is an aspect of body size that influences the amount of fat free mass in the body (191, 192). Since fat free mass is related to height, it is inappropriate to judge or compare the amount of fat free mass in absolute value (kilograms or pounds) among individuals with different height (193). For example, a short individual would be penalized since his/her absolute fat free mass is expected to be lower than that of a tall individual.

7.1 Normalizing for height

The shortcomings of the percentage fat approach were realized in 1990, when it was first suggested that fat-free mass and fat mass should each be normalized separately for height (194). Both fat-free mass and fat mass can be divided by height squared, to give the fat-free mass index (FFMI) and the fat mass index (FMI). Such a model allows independent evaluation of both fat-free mass and fat mass relative to body size, and useful and meaningful comparisons of body composition among individuals with different height.

The fat-free mass index can be useful as an overall measure of muscularity. It expresses the amount of muscle mass (fat free mass) in relation to height. In the same way, the fat mass index can be useful as an overall measure of body fatness. It expresses the amount of body fat in relation to height.

7.2 Calculation of fat-free mass index and fat mass index

While the calculation is the similar, the difference is that the fat-free mass index and fat mass index, contrary to BMI, take the fat free mass and fat mass into consideration. The fat free mass and fat mass are both expressed in kilograms, and height is expressed in meters. In order to calculate these indexes on has to know one’s body fat percentage (which can be assessed by different methods, see the summary at the end of this article). Thus the fat-free mass index and fat mass index builds on the body fat percentage, but is a better way of expressing body composition data.

Let’s use the same example individuals we used for the calculation of BMI in table 4 above, but now instead we calculate the fat-free mass index and fat mass index. For this calculation, we assume that the male bodybuilder has a body fat level equivalent to 8%, and the female bodybuilder 11%.

TABLE 7: Calculation of fat-free mass index and fat mass index.

The values for the fat-free mass index in the general male population can be compared to the corresponding values in male athletes, which are about 25-30 (196). A man with a fat-free mass index of 16-17 has a very low amount of muscle; he’s someone who can be described as “frail” or “flabby” (197). A fat-free mass index of 19-20 is typical of an average American or European male college student (197). When we get up to a fat-free mass index of 22-23, we’re describing a man with noticeable muscularity, and a fat-free mass index of 24-30 is almost only seen in male bodybuilders. For women, a fat-free mass index of 18-20 notifies a significant muscularity. Values of 22 and above are characteristic of female bodybuilders.

Muscularity is an important component in competitive bodybuilding success (symmetry being another one). Competitive bodybuilders compare themselves against each others, and the FFMI is also relevant in these circumstances.

7.3 Comparisons of muscularity

Now that you know how to calculate your fat-free mass index and fat mass index, you can start making some interesting comparisons. Time to wake up if you’re a bodybuilder! :)

TABLE 8: Values for the fat-free mass index and fat mass index in the general population (195).

8. Body fat distribution

Related to body composition is body fat distribution (also called fat patterning or regional body fat) (36, 171). Body fat distribution refers to where on the body the fat is stored, or more specifically the relative amounts of fat in different body locations (36, 171). Two specific types of body fat distribution have received much attention; central and peripheral body fat distribution, also called “apple” versus “pears” body types.

Central body fat distribution (also called belly fat, abdominal fat obesity, upper body obesity, male body fat distribution or android-type obesity) refers to fat deposition in the abdominal area (around the waist). Peripheral body fat distribution (also called lower body obesity, female body fat distribution or gynoid-type obesity) refers to fat deposition around the hips and thighs. The reason central body fat distribution is also called “male” body fat distribution is that men for a given level of body fatness usually have more fat stored around their waistlines than women, although women also can have a “male” looking body fat distribution (56, 198-203).

8.1 Health risks

Abdominal fat distribution reflects an altered metabolic profile (36, 204). It increases the risk for insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), atherosclerosis and a negatively altered blood cholesterol/lipoprotein profile (96, 97, 99, 115, 205-207). Abdominal obesity is associated with an increased risk for insulin resistance, heart disease, stroke, and death, independent of the total degree of obesity, in both men and women (208-212). The health risks of abdominal obesity have been substantiated by the finding that they are seen in obese as well as in non-obese individuals (213-216). A large waist also significantly increases the likelihood of low-back pain (217).

8.2 Different abdominal fat depots

While there is no dispute over the importance of abdominal fat as a risk factor for these diseases and disabilities, researchers are still uncertain about the relative impact of the different abdominal fat depots (218-220). Abdominal fat is composed of abdominal subcutaneous fat (the kind you can grasp with your fingers) and intra-abdominal fat (221). The intra-abdominal fat, also called visceral fat, lies out of reach deep within the abdominal cavity, where it pads the spaces between our abdominal organs.

According to the latest research, intra-abdominal fat is a key player in cardiovascular disease risk (205), while abdominal subcutaneous fat seems to be more strongly related to insulin resistance (222-224). But for practical and aesthetic purposes, no matter which abdominal fat depot is most detrimental, the bottom line is; as our waistlines grow, so does our health risks.

8.3 Measurement of belly fat

Body fat distribution has traditionally been assessed by the waist-to-hip ratio (171, 225, 226). However, it should be recognized that the waist-to-hip ratio only provides a crude estimation of the amount of abdominal fat (226). With the recent development of imaging techniques, such as magnetic imaging and computed tomography, it has become possible to measure body fat distribution with higher level of accuracy and to distinguish the amount of abdominal subcutaneous abdominal fat from the amount of intra-abdominal fat (227-231).

With this methodology studies have been conducted that have examined the relation between different body circumferences and ratios with the amount of subcutaneous abdominal fat, intra-abdominal fat and total body fatness, and the respective contribution of these fat depots to obesity-related disorders. The results from these later studies have shown that waist circumference is a better indicator of abdominal fat, and is more strongly related to the accumulation of both intra-abdominal fat, subcutaneous abdominal fat and cardiovascular risk factors, than the classic waist-to-hip ratio (211, 221, 232-242). Waist circumference alone is even better than the BMI for detecting obesity and obesity-related health risks, and has a stronger correlation with metabolic syndrome risk factors than percent body fat (243-247).

Indeed, the recommendation has been put forth that health professionals should focus to implement exercise and dietary strategies to help people reduce their waistlines rather than concentrate upon reducing body weight (226). The rationale behind this recommendation is that with an exercise program reciprocal changes in muscle mass (increase) and adipose tissue (decrease) could result in no change (or even an increase) in body weight, yet mobilization of abdominal adipose tissue could still be achieved and indicated by a reduction in waist circumference (226). Thus a reduction of a few inches or centimeters (measured with a regular measuring tape) could still indicate significant mobilization of visceral (and subcutaneous abdominal) adipose tissue in response to exercise training.

8.4 Waist Guidelines

Now that you know the importance to keep your waistline under control (both for health and aesthetic reasons), you might wonder where the threshold is beyond which you should get serious? This question has also been asked by health scientists, whose research is summarized with table 9.

TABLE 9: Sex-specific cut-off points for waist circumference (206, 248).

TABLE 8: Values for the fat-free mass index and fat mass index in the general population (195).

The higher thresholds for men and women have been adopted by the National Health Institute and the World Health Organization as a means to improve detection of obesity-related disease risk (32, 33, 249). Individuals with waist circumferences at or above threshold 2 should reduce their abdominal fat mass/body fat (248). Individuals with waist circumferences at the lower “alerting” thresholds should gain no further abdominal fat/body fat (248).

9. Summary

By now you know that your body weight, despite all hype, doesn’t tell anything about your health or aesthetics. And forget about the BMI, which is the popular surrogate for body fatness. The reason you should ignore the BMI is that individuals with “obese” BMI values can have a normal or even a low amount of body fat and a large muscle mass (for example bodybuilders), while individuals with a “normal” BMI can have an excess amount of body fat and a reduced muscle mass (like couch potatoes). BMI is therefore clearly misleading for physically active individuals.

On the other hand, while measuring your waist circumference might seem rudimentary, it is actually one of the most reliable ways (next to the expensive imaging techniques) to quantify your amount of abdominal fat, both subcutaneous abdominal and intra-abdominal, and thereby you health risks. At the same time, your waistline has a great impact on your looks, the way your clothes fit, and your physical attractiveness.

About the Author:

Monica Mollica has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Nutrition from the University of Stockholm, Sweden, and is an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer. She works a dietary consultant, health journalist and writer for, and is also a web designer and videographer.

Monica has admired and been fascinated by muscular and sculptured strong athletic bodies since childhood, and discovered bodybuilding as an young teenager. Realizing the importance of nutrition for maximal results in the gym, she went for a BSc and MSc with a major in Nutrition at the University.

During her years at the University she was a regular contributor to the Swedish bodybuilding magazine BODY, and she has published the book (in Swedish) “Functional Foods for Health and Energy Balance”, and authored several book chapters in Swedish publications.

It was her insatiable thirst for knowledge and scientific research in the area of bodybuilding and health that brought her to the US. She has completed one semester at the PhD-program “Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health” at Baylor University Texas, at the department of Health Human Performance and Recreation, and worked as an ISSA certified personal trainer. Today, Monica is sharing her solid experience by doing dietary consultations and writing about topics related to health, fitness, bodybuilding, anti-aging and longevity.


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