A Look Beyond the Scales


Everyone has different training goals. Some people want a 6 pack; some want to feel better when they look in the mirror; others aren’t that bothered how they look and just want to be active and healthy.


When you decide to embark on your fat-loss journey, consider what you are willing to do and what will provide you with the most enjoyment and satisfaction. If you want to get to a really low level body fat percentage, you need to accept that it’s going to be tougher than carrying a little extra fat.


Get Real

Take a person who says: “I’m really struggling with my diet. I just can’t stop my self from eating that pack of biscuits. I only intended to have one!”

No, you are not struggling. It’s simply that your goal isn’t important enough to you to stop you from eating those biscuits.


If you CHOOSE to make poor choices like this, you have to be realistic about what you will achieve.


We’re used to avoiding anything that is inconvenient or uncomfortable, but I don’t think suffering is necessarily a bad thing; challenges like regulating nutrition and exercise can be a motivating experience. Finding a level where you are happy and can enjoy a healthy lifestyle is important.


A look beyond the scales

Keep it in Context

It’s not uncommon for those who are trying to change their body to become hooked on the number on the scales. Although important in some circumstances,  a more useful value for most of us is body fat percentage.


This helps to give you further feedback on how your body is or isn’t changing by looking at your lean muscle tissue versus fat tissue, instead of only measuring bodyweight.


Body fat percentage is the total mass of fat divided by total body mass; body fat includes essential body fat and stored body fat.


Essential body fat is necessary to maintain life and reproductive functions. The percentage of essential body fat for women is higher due their hormonal levels and reproductive needs.


High body fat levels have been linked with many health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure & cardiovascular disease. Being in the clinically obese category means that health problems may become of concern1.


Body fat % can be calculated with  variety of methods with varying degrees of accuracy including calipers, DEXA, and hydrostatic & bioelectrical impedance. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2082845/ for a comparison of the various methods.


Below is the body fat % chart from the American Council on Exercise. This table serves well as a guideline.

Men (%) Women(%)
Essential Fat 2-5 10-13
Athlete 6-13 14-20
Fitness 14-17 21-24
Average 18-24 25-31
Obese 25+ 32+

How to Reduce Your Body Fat

There’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to losing fat (we all know that annoying person you can stuff their face and still stay slim), but here are some guidelines for people in each body fat category that will work for most of us.


Obese (Female 32%+ / Male 25%+)

To stay at this number involves putting effort into eating/drinking too many calories. You may already exercise but undo your work in the gym with a combo of poor nutrition & lifestyle choices.


Those couple of pints you have all too often need to be cut back to once a week or less, not 3-4 nights per week. Those 3-4 biscuits you eat every night equal 2 packs over the week. Take the stairs instead of the lift, walk more, go to bed a little hungry, start working on building healthy habits, and generally be more active. Just making small changes like these will start to promote some positive changes in reducing this number.

Keep an eye on your portion sizes too.


Acceptable (Female 25-31% / Male 18-24%)

This is where I would say the average person is; it’s sustainable by being active 2-5 times a week, having a varied diet with both good and bad choices, usually lacking enough protein, eating some fruit and vegetables and snacking a lot. Their caloric intake tends to be very up and down through the week.


They will usually find they just maintain their current weight and never really make many changes in body composition unless they start to address the above.


To get you at the lower end of this range, or out of it completely, pay closer attention to your training, nutrition and lifestyle. When going out for meals start choosing the salad option and skipping the starters, bread and dessert. Drink alcohol in moderation 2-3 glasses per week, regularly train 3-5 times per week, and live an active lifestyle.


I would also encourage you to have breakfast, lunch & dinner every day, start tracking your protein intake (0.8-1g per lb. of bodyweight is a good place to start) and aim to have vegetables with each meal.


Portion control also works well here (Precision nutrition offer a useful Portion control chart here – http://www.precisionnutrition.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/EatRainbow_PortionGuide.pdf).

Fitness (Female 21-24% / Male 14-17%)

This category is where things start to get a little more serious, but also what I would call the happy point as it’s the best of both worlds. Staying around this range allows you to enjoy life while being a healthy individual.


Being active 3-6 times per week, solid nutrition principles in place, with a decent knowledge of foods, while balancing the rest of life.

Moderation is the key here; you will find people in this category tend to not sweat the small stuff.


The 80/20 rule works well, if 80% of what you do is ‘good’ the other 20% isn’t going to affect your results.


Athletes (Female 14-20% / Male 6-13%)

A step on from the above category, everything is a little more disciplined. This is also where you will tend to find the people blessed with good genetics.


This is doesn’t mean if you are not blessed with good genetics you cannot maintain these levels of body fat, it’s just going to be bit more work. Training is likely to be more than just ‘being active’ it will probably be a major activity in your life.


Nutrition is built around your training, you may track your calorie intake, follow a strict nutrition plan, tend to not drink alcohol very often.


For some sitting in this range can be similar to the above category, where they can adopt the 80/20 diet principle combined with a high level of training & good genetics they can maintain this without too much effort.


Essential Fat (Female 10-13% / Male 2-5%)

To go to these levels takes further effort & suffering. I would say it’s very likely that it will require you to track your caloric intake to the gram, weighing foods, monitoring energy expenditure, possibly training between 3-7 times per week, and being prepared to make serious sacrifices. Mood swings, fatigue, lack of motivation, disrupted social life and eating disorders are just some of the things you may come across trying to attain these super-low levels of body fat.


These levels of body fat % are what bodybuilders/physique competitors strive for. To try to stay at these low levels of body fat is not healthy or sustainable for the long term.