What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage for Women?

Body fat percentage refers to the weight your body carries that is fat tissue. Though most of us are in envious awe of athletes with reported body fat percentages of 3 to 5 per cent, the reality is that everyone needs a certain amount of fat to live. Too much or too little poses potentially serious health risks.

Why Measuring Body Fat is Important

Scale weight alone is not the best indicator of a healthy body weight, as it includes body fat as well as lean tissue (bones, muscle and organs). Some women carry less body fat than their body requires for proper functioning, which may result in an inability to conceive and cessation of the menstrual cycle.

With Age Comes Fat

The fat on our bodies insulates vital organs, helps regulate body temperature, and serves as the body's main form of stored energy. The female body requires more body fat than that of the male, for proper hormone production, menstruation and to support a healthy pregnancy. Body fat is closely correlated to age. As we age, our ability to maintain lean tissue, maintain bone density and repair cartilage decreases due to hormonal changes and lifestyle habits.

Too Little Body Fat

Results of a study published in 2006 by the researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reveal that very thin women are 72 per cent more likely to miscarry in the first three months of pregnancy than women of normal weight. According to Dr. Rose Frisch, associate professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health, "body fat in women converts the male hormone androgen into the female hormone oestrogen. Female body fat also controls the flow of a hormone called leptin, which affects appetite, energy metabolism and reproduction."

Too Much Body Fat

Too much body fat (obesity) is associated with serious afflictions like diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease and certain types of cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity in American adults has increased by 60 per cent within the past 20 years. The National Center for Health estimates that 33 per cent of American adults are obese, with more than 300,000 deaths attributable to obesity. The World Health Organization describes obesity as "one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century."

Healthy Body Fat Levels for Women

Many body fat charts fail to consider physical changes associated with the ageing process. Tanita Industries, a leader in electronic instrumentation designed to assess age-appropriate levels of body fat, recommends women ages 20 to 39 aim for a level between 21 to 33 per cent. Women ages 40 to 59 should maintain levels between 23 and 34.9 per cent. Seniors ages 60 to 79 should aim for a level between 24 and 39.5 per cent.

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About the Author

Deborrah Cooper is an ISSA-certified trainer and ACE lifestyle consultant specializing in women, sports nutrition, program design and post-rehab fitness. She is also a dating coach and advice columnist. In 2007 she wrote "Sucka Free Love!" a hilarious guide to smarter dating for modern singles. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication from the University of Houston.