Why body fat percentage is not your only indicator of health

Body fat percentage is often used as a measure of someone’s health, but what exactly does it mean and are there other indicators you need to look out for?

Body fat often gets a bad rap but the body needs fat to support cell function, protect our organs, keep our body warm, help absorb some nutrients and produce certain hormones.

According to guidelines, for women, healthy body fat percentages range from about 21 per cent for younger women to 36 per cent after the age of 60.

Young men can have upwards of 8 per cent body fat to 25 per cent for older males.

What body fat can tell us about our health

Too much or too little body fat can increase your risk of certain illness and disease.

Key risks associated with too much body fat include diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

It may also raise the risk of dementia, according to University of South Australia study.

The world-first research involved 28,000 people and showed increased body fat around the abdomen led to a decline in grey matter in the brain, which is essential for learning, attention and memory function.

Too little body fat can lead to issues such as osteoporosis, irregular periods or cessation of periods (called amenorrhea), fertility issues, and heart concerns.

Is body fat percentage the same as body mass index (BMI)?

BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height. You then divide the answer by your height again to get your BMI.

There are also online BMI calculators that do the maths for you.

But is not always the best measure of health as it can indicate a person is overweight if they are tall or have a greater muscle mass.

Body fat percentage can provide a better guide to body composition, but accurately measuring it can be tricky.

Methods such as skinfold and impedance scales can provide a guide, while the most accurate ways to measure body fat involve MRI and CT scans but can be expensive.

Get your health assessed and live better

Exercise and Sports Science Australia exercise physiologist Nicole French says if your body fat percentage is higher than it should be, it’s an indication to look at your lifestyle.

“A first step is to see your GP to get a waist measurement done and to have blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels checked,” Nicole says.

Eating less processed foods and more fresh foods, along the lines of the Mediterranean diet, and eating smaller portion sizes can help shed excess fat.

Nicole also recommends regular physical activity such as a mix of cardiovascular exercise such as walking, swimming, cycling and running with resistance-based exercise such as push-ups and squats.

“Remember your body fat percentage is one number – it’s not the be all and end all,” Nicole says.

What are some other measures of health?

So if body fat percentage is only part of our health story, what are some other indicators of our wellbeing?

Waist circumference

Measuring your waist circumference will tell you if you’re carrying excess body fat around your middle  –  an area where health experts say excess fat can be particularly damaging.

Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute head of clinical diabetes Associate Professor Neale Cohen says waist measurement won’t reveal your overall body fat percentage but it’s a useful indicator of whether you need to make some lifestyle changes.

“Central fat around the tummy seems to be more closely linked with chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes,” Assoc Prof Cohen says.


The consistency of your bowel movements can signal you might need to talk to your doctor about your digestive health.

Energy levels

While we all experience exhaustion from time to time, unexplained poor energy levels can be a sign of a deeper issue you should get checked out.

Blood pressure

High blood pressure can lead to serious cardiovascular problems including heart attack, stroke or kidney disease, so it’s important to keep an eye on.

“Family history can increase risk of high blood pressure, but it can be avoided with the right diet,” Zadi Training founder Adala Bolto says.

Optimal blood pressure is 120/80.

Cardiovascular fitness

A heart rate that is either too fast or too slow can be an indicator of certain cardiovascular issues or illness.

“If someone’s effort level is above six just doing normal activities such as walking up a flight of stairs, it can be a sign that something needs to be looked at,” Adala says.

Written by Sarah Marinos.