If your goal is fat loss, start by exploring our female body fat percentage visual comparison guide.
You will learn the visual difference between body fat levels ranging from 10% up to 35%, so you can get a more accurate picture of your own body fat percentage and what that means for your health.
This guide is created with expertise from delivering body transformation results for more than 25,000+ personal training clients at Ultimate Performance worldwide.
You will also learn:
Body fat, otherwise known as adipose tissue, is a normal constituent of every human body. Its primary role is to store and provide energy for metabolic processes for everything from your heart beating to your legs sprinting.
What most people don’t realise is that fat is an organ and it plays an incredibly important role in regulating our body size and ensuring our survival.
To understand how this works, we need to first understand the different types of fat and their roles.
Brown fat, the lesser-known kind of fat, is packed with mitochondria. Rather than store energy, it actually burns energy to produce heat, keeping us warm. Brown fat acts to break down blood sugar and fat molecules to create heat.
Babies have high amounts of brown fat to keep them warm before they develop the ability to shiver to produce heat. As we grow older, brown fat all but disappears, apart from tiny pockets in places like the back of the neck, albeit in very small quantities.
Like brown fat, beige fat produces energy to create heat in the body. This type of fat is that it is actually derived from white fat, the most common and plentiful type of fat in the body. This is why beige fat can be found in small quantities all over the body.
Studies are currently being carried out to understand how we can activate these fat cells to help combat obesity.
White fat is composed of visceral (found around the internal organs) and subcutaneous fat (visible just under the surface of the skin).
Visceral fat is extremely dangerous, partly because it isn’t visible. In theory, you could appear to be of a healthy weight externally. However, if your lifestyle involves high amounts of processed foods, little exercise, poor sleep and high intakes of alcohol, you could be storing your fat viscerally.
High amounts of visceral fat are associated with health issues including insulin resistance, heart disease, liver problems and chronic inflammation.
Subcutaneous fat is the type most people want to decrease when they start a new fitness regimen. It sits on the surface of the body and is the fat that we see in the mirror, so think of the typical ‘love handles’ or ‘muffin top’.
Body fat percentage is a measure of how much body fat you have relative to your lean body mass. Many people think that lean body mass refers only to muscle tissue, but it includes everything in your body that is not fat. This includes your organs, skin, bone, fluid levels, food weight, and stored glycogen.
We use a measure of lean body mass rather than total weight to assess each individual’s starting point and to create their initial nutrition plan. This is because body fat and lean body tissues do not have the same energy and nutrient requirements.
We use measures of lean body mass to set a calorie goal that encourages fat loss. It is also an important benchmark for setting protein intake, which will help to minimise muscle loss during a diet.
For most women 10% is generally the lowest level of body fat you would seek to aim for, unless you were competing as a competitive bodybuilder.
This level of leanness would result in an extremely athletic physique, with great muscle definition and visible abs, although this may vary depending on the thickness of your muscle belly.
However, this level of body fat would be incredibly difficult for most people to maintain without following a very restrictive diet. Dieting and remaining at very low levels of body fat can result in low energy availability, which can result in the body diverting energy away from reproductive processes. So, you might notice changes to your cycle length and the duration of your periods or they may stop altogether. It may also make it more difficult to fall pregnant if you are trying to conceive.
It’s important for females to carry a little more fat, not only for a generally more pleasing aesthetic (subjective, obviously) but also to maintain optimal health. So, if you are concerned about your menstrual cycle or fertility, staying this lean may not be a great idea for long.
When it comes to sub-10% body fat, for women this is very difficult indeed to attain for most, and 8-10% is considered essential for life. Those who can manage it will likely have hugely compromised health, immunity and fertility, and would not want to stay anywhere near this level of body fat for long, if at all.
For most women, this is a great level of body fat to maintain.
It is achievable and maintainable for most with good habits, such as maintaining an active lifestyle and eating a nutrient-dense, mostly unprocessed diet. But you should still have still room for flexibility such as eating out in moderation.
You will be lean, feminine, yet athletic, and will often see the outline of your abdominal structure.
You will also enjoy good shape and definition across the whole body while maintaining optimal health, lower inflammation and a reduced risk of most health issues or hormonal concerns.
This is considered to be the ‘average’ healthy body fat for most females.
You may have less muscle definition but your natural curves will very much be a part of your body to love and embrace.
Health issues shouldn’t be a concern to most women here general physical activity is important to keep health, inflammation and the risk of disease low and the minimise the risk of visceral fat.
This is on the higher side of what is considered to be the ‘average’ woman, according to most medical standards.
Although this level of body fat is not bad, per se, it may be a trigger to reexamine your activity levels and educate yourself on proper nutrition. Simple changes like daily walks and eating a diet high in protein and vegetables are quick wins that would have an immediate benefit.
The more fat you carry, the higher your risk for serious disease further down the line. Cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack, dementia and many other serious conditions all become more likely with increased levels of body fat.
Inflammation will probably be high here, peri-menstrual symptoms will likely be exaggerated, and hormonal imbalances could begin to occur, including signs of estrogen dominance. This may look like excess fat storage around the hips and legs, excessively painful PMS and period pains, unexplained mood swings, and low energy.
30% body fat is towards the end of the scale where females are quite overweight and may suffer joint issues, hormonal disturbances, and may be at a very real risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases.
And that’s before even considering the mental effects of being overweight, low self-confidence, anxiety and destructive eating patterns. Your clothes may not fit well and unsightly fat will hang over tighter clothes and underwear.
A measure of 35% body fat or more is not considered healthy at all for men or women. This kind of body composition makes you a prime candidate for diabetes and certainly an elevated risk of heart disease further down the line.
People at this level of body fat also tend to suffer from a laundry list of ailments caused by inflammation, poor gut health, and joint issues due to the simple fact that they are carrying too much weight day to day.
This is the stage where it is important to take immediate action to start exercising and begin a calorie-controlled diet to control your weight and regain your health and body shape.
At this level of body fat, many women are also likely to experience hormonal issues, such as disruptions to the menstrual cycle, and increased risk of infertility, and complications during pregnancy and birth.
Women with high levels of body fat are also more likely to experience more severe symptoms from conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis.
There are a range of tools that we use measure body fat so we can tell whether fat loss is occurring. The main thing to remember with all body fat measuring tools is that they are an estimate and all have a margin of error.
This is why we use range of tools and methods to measure progress, including:
Each of these measures provide different benefits and downsides, as shown in the table below.
As a result, we use multiple benchmarks to compensate for the inconsistencies that are unavoidable with any single measurement tool. Rather than drawing conclusions based on each method in isolation, which increases the risk of errors, we look at results across multiple assessment tools and data points to take a holistic view of the client’s progress.
For example, many clients will lose weight at a fast rate in their first few weeks of the program. If you were to look at only this change, fat loss may appear to be taking place too quickly, increasing the risk of muscle loss. However, when we also take into consideration skinfold and circumference measurements, it becomes obvious that this large change is mostly due to water loss and we do not need to make a change to the plan.
In contrast, there are many factors that influence scale weight. As a result, your weight may not always drop every day, even if you are following the plan to the ‘t’. By also tracking skinfold and circumference measurements, we can tell if fat loss is still taking place, regardless of daily weight fluctuations.
The only way we could truly know someone’s bodyfat percentage would be to cut all the fat off them and weigh it. For obvious reasons, this is not the preferred option for most people. But there are various scientific tools that can allow us to do this with different levels of effectiveness.
Every measurement tool has a margin of error. The main thing is to find an option that you can use as accurately as possible (i.e., sufficient training in a particular tool or going to an expert) consistently.
All you need to know is that these measurements can only give you an estimate of your starting point. You may need to refine your fat loss approach as you progress.
The table below summarises the three models and the tools that use them:
At Ultimate Performance, our primary method of measuring bodyfat percentage is through skinfold callipers and this is for several reasons.
Firstly, they allow us to be far more specific than circumference measurements as they pick up subtle changes in body fat distribution.
We measure the thickness of the skin and fat at particular sites and apply this to an algorithm, which calculates your total body fat percentage.
The advantage is that, even if one or two sites have not decreased, we can look at the sum of all measurements to see if change is occurring, albeit small.
However, skinfold readings may not be appropriate or possible for everybody.
The kinds of cheap callipers you may see online are not of sufficient quality to provide an accurate reading. Likewise, medical-grade callipers are expensive and are delicate pieces of equipment.
The accuracy of calliper measurements is also highly reliant on the skill of the person taking the readings and requires training and practice to get right. Skinfold readings should only be carried out by a trained professional. It is also almost impossible to take accurate calliper readings on yourself due to the nature of the sites measured.
Circumference is simply the distance around a body part from point to point. Reductions in certain areas, such as the trunk, or the thighs, are often associated with decreases in body fat and improved body composition.
Typical sites include the waist and hip or more gender-specific sites, such as arms for men or thighs for women.
Circumference measurements have a slight advantage over scale weight in that they are site-specific. This means that you will have a better idea of where you are losing weight, although we still cannot tell what type of tissue this is. While we mostly cannot spot reduce body fat, seeing specific sites decrease can be highly motivating for some people.
What is great about circumference measurements is that they are less susceptible to subtle changes in the body’s fluid levels. It is also a cheap and easy-to-use method that requires little training.
BMI or Body Mass Index is based on your height and weight and measures if your weight is healthy.
To calculate BMI, take your weight in kilos and divide it by your height in metres squared.
Bodyfat percentage measures how much body fat you have relative to your lean body mass. This includes not only muscle but everything in your body that is not fat, such as your organs, skin, bone, fluid levels, food weight, and stored glycogen.
However, when we are talking about what is ‘optimally’ healthy, there is an important difference between BMI and body fat percentage.
BMI does not account for body composition at all. As a result, an individual with a high level of muscle mass could be considered overweight or obese for their height. The irony here is that these types of individuals could be classed as ‘unhealthy’ whereas a typical ‘skinny fat’ person may be classed as ‘healthy’.
However, there are some important reasons why we need to consider not just our total body weight but what that weight represents.
If you dissect a pound (0.5kg) of hydrated muscle, you’ll find that it is only around a third protein, with the rest being minerals and water. As a result, a pound of muscle only contains roughly 800 kCal.
In contrast, a pound of human body fat contains around 500 kCal. Muscle mass is therefore far more metabolically costly to synthesise and maintain than body fat, which requires little additional output.
And the benefits maintaining higher levels of muscle relative to your body fat percentage is not purely aesthetic. Higher levels of muscle mass mean you can eat higher calories at rest without gaining weight. The risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure all decrease significantly.
One disadvantage of both BMI and body fat percentage is that it is incredibly hard to measure visceral fat. Some visceral fat is essential to protect our internal organs from blunt trauma. However, in high amounts, your risk of health issues such as insulin resistance, heart disease, liver problems and chronic inflammation all increase.
If more than 10% of your total fat is held viscerally, your risk of type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and colorectal cancer rise dramatically.
However, the good news is that the body taps into this visceral fat first when you implement a calorie-controlled diet and exercise.
Muscle gain and fat loss occur at very different rates so it would be very difficult to change your body composition significantly without the number on the scale also decreasing. In nearly all cases, lowering your body fat percentage requires weight loss.
The great news is that the science behind weight loss is very simple; you need to create a calorie deficit or a negative energy balance. That is, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn through your daily activity. The most effective way to do this is through a combination of reduced food intake and increased physical activity.
However, without putting some other conditions in place, you may lose muscle tissue before your body starts tapping into fat. This is because muscle is more costly to the body in energy terms.
There are two ways we can encourage the body to tap into fat stores, not muscle, during a period of sustained calorie deficit. The first is resistance training, which signals to the body to retain and sometimes build lean tissue. The second is eating a high protein diet, which is scaled based on your lean body mass.
Women naturally carry more body fat than women due to differences in their hormonal make-up and their natural biological sex differences.
Simply put, women need a certain level of body fat to fulfil reproductive functions such as pregnancy and childrearing.
Oestrogen, the primary female sex hormone, is predominantly responsible for the typical female storage fat pattern around the back of the upper arm and shoulders, breasts, pubic area, hips and thighs.
The great news is that this fat storage pattern also means that women tend to be healthier and at reduced risk of serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes compared to their male counterparts. This is because they are less likely to store visceral fat around vital internal organs, which significantly increases the risk of death from all causes.
In a word, yes, but there may be several caveats to this. For women sitting anywhere between 12-15% body fat, which may be deemed low for many, this likely shouldn’t cause disruptions to the menstrual cycle. However, consistently dieting on or eating very low calories or performing high amounts of high-intensity cardio could cause stress to the body, which may make hormonal disruptions more likely.
If you are a woman aiming for as low as 10% body fat, it is important to be aware that, because you are starting to tap into essential fat for life, your menstrual cycle is very likely to become disrupted, known as amenorrhea. In order to reverse this change, you may need to gain some body fat, but this does not mean that you need to gain unhealthy amounts.
This will depend entirely on the woman, how many calories she is eating, her natural hormonal profile, the type of training she performs and so on.
However, for the vast majority of women it is generally not recommended to go lower than 10-12% body fat for any extended period.
See Men’s Body Fat Comparison in Pictures here.