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Body Composition: Beyond the Scale

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Some of us experience a bit of anxiety before stepping on the scale. Maybe it’s been a while. Maybe you haven’t been so good this weekend…and last weekend…and last week. However, the numbers that appear beneath your feet may not be deserving of the anxiety. Those numbers aren’t giving the whole picture. What we should be focusing on is body composition.

Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash

Even BMI (body mass index) which estimates your body fat based on height, weight, and gender, doesn’t do your body justice. BMI calculators can’t account for muscle mass or fat mass. Thus, Dr. Peter Attia reminds us that when we say we want to “lose weight”, we really mean lose fat. There’s so much more going on in the body besides the numbers: let’s take a look!

The numbers that appear on a scale are of bone mass, organs and tissue, water percentage, muscle mass, and yes…body fat percentage.

Muscle mass equates to the total mass of muscle in the body including all three groups of muscle: skeletal, smooth, and cardiac. Skeletal muscle is the only one under our control, and can be grown by lifting weights. Smooth muscle contracts on its own occurring in the gut and other organs and cardiac muscle makes up the walls of the heart. Dr. Attia states that increasing or simply maintaining muscle mass promotes longevity. According to, ideal muscle mass percentages by age are:

  • Ages 20-39: 75-89 percent for men, 63-75.5 percent for women
  • Ages 40-59: 73-86 percent for men, 62-73.5 percent for women
  • Ages 60-79: 70-84 percent for men, 60-72.5 percent for women

Now we arrive at fat percentage, which Dr. Attia argues we want to keep relatively low for longevity and health. Body fat consists of two kinds: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is beneath your skin but above the fascia (a corset-like sheet holding you together), and visceral fat is beneath the fascia near your organs.

High levels of either type of fat is not ideal, but visceral fat is more dangerous. Visceral fat is found constricting the liver, kidneys, spleen, and gut, and is associated with metabolic disease. Dr. Attia states that in a perfect world, we would all measure what percentage of our total body fat is visceral. Though there is no standard measurement, Dr. Attia recommends 2 lbs in young healthy individuals and up to 4.5 lbs in older healthy individuals. Aside from this distinction, below are recommended total body fat percentages according to

  • Ages 20-39: 8-20 percent for men, 22-33 percent for women
  • Ages 40-59: 11-22 percent for men, 24-34 percent for women
  • ages 60-79: 13-25 percent for men, 25-36 percent for women

Unless you’re willing to get an MRI to check for visceral fat, there’s not an accessible way to measure the different types of fat within your total percentage. However, technology called BioelectricaI Impedence Analysis (BIA) is available in many smart scales and is fairly accurate in predicting overall body composition: body fat percentage, muscle percentage, and overall weight. BIA sends a low electrical signal through the body that meets resistance when it hits fat tissue, thereby estimating total body fat percentage.

The next time you step onto the scale, remember that Dr. Attia considers a perfect world to be one where we track our visceral fat only. Whatever number appears between your toes, it’s made up of muscle, bone, organs, water, and everything else in your body that makes you – you!

To live longer and healthier lives, we want to focus on building and maintaining muscle mass and keeping fat mass low. Your bathroom scale gives only a piece of a bigger picture. Even if you have a smart scale with BIA tech, the body fat percent is an estimate and no reason to ruin your day. Either way, they are only numbers and nothing to be anxious about. There’s so much more beyond the scale!

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