3.7.1. Body Weight Versus Body Composition

Limitations of the BMI Calculation

Body composition measures the different tissues that make up our body. Normally tissues are grouped into three categories; fat mass, lean mass (including skeletal muscle and organs), and bone mass. There are several ways of measuring body composition, some being more accurate than others. The most common methods include DEXA scan, bio-electrical impedance and skin folds. Since these methods either require trained operating personal or expensive machinery, the body mass index (BMI) calculation is often used as an easy, inexpensive way of estimating body composition.

Body Mass Index = Weight (kg) / Height (m)2

There are limitations to only considering body composition measures such as weight or BMI. In Table “Variances in Body Composition Between Individuals With the Same Weight” you can see that the lean and obese males have the same weight but that because of their difference in height, one has a lean BMI and the other has an obese BMI. Furthermore, even though the obese male and bodybuilder have the same BMI, the obese male has a waist circumference that is classified as unhealthy where as the bodybuilder has a waist circumference that is classified as healthy.

Table Variances in Body Composition Between Individuals With the Same Weight

Lean male Male with obesity Bodybuilder male
Weight 75 kg 75 kg 75 kg
Height 1.8 m 1.5 m 1.5
BMI 23 kg/m2 33 kg/m2 33 kg/m2
Waist circumference 85 cm 110 cm 80 cm

Individuals with the same body weight can vary drastically in BMI and waist circumference. Weight, height, BMI and waist circumference should all be considered when examining body composition.

The major limitation of the BMI calculation is that it does not differentiate between fat mass and lean mass. Therefore a muscular individual will be classified as obese even though they have minimal fat tissue. Ideally weight, height and waist circumference can be obtained to give a better representation of an individuals body composition. This discrepancy also exists when applying BMI to the senior population. As age increases, muscle mass declines. Seniors who have experienced years of muscle mass decline but increased body fat may maintain a constant weight despite having a very different body composition.

Other criticisms of using BMI as a health risk assessment tool include its failure to take age sex or gender into account. As discussed previously, females naturally have more body fat yet are classified in the same context as males. Because this measurement is so widely used by physicians, patients continue to express concerns about the validity of BMI as an indication of fatness.

Regardless of the criticisms, BMI as used for the general population, has been shown to be a reasonable predictor of health outcomes. At its core, it is not intended to be an estimate of body composition, i.e., measure FM and FFM. Instead, it is intended to be used as an estimate of healthy/unhealthy levels of body fat. When used as a means of tracking weight changes over time it can be a valuable tool in predicting health and for recommending lifestyle modifications.

How To Measure Body Composition

Multiple methods exist to estimate body composition. Remember, body composition is the ration of FM and FFM used to help determine health risks. Of the other methods already mentioned (waist, waist- to-hip ratio, and BMI), none provide estimates of body composition but do provide measurements of other weight- related health markers, such as abdominal fat. Experts have designed several methods to estimate body composition. While they are not flawless, they do provide a fairly accurate representation of body composition. We discuss the five most common methods here.

Hydrostatic Weighing (Underwater Weighing)

At one time, hydrostatic weighing (also and maybe more accurately called hydrodensitometry) was considered the criterion for measuring body composition. Many other methods are founded on this model, in one form or another. This method attempts to measure the density of the body by applying Archimedes’ principle: density = mass/volume. The mass and volume components are measured by using dry weight and then weight while being submerged in a water tank. Since fat is less dense than muscle tissue, a person with more body fat will weigh less in the water than a similar person with more lean mass. Using the measurements, the density can be determined and converted into body fat percentage. With a small margin of error (around 1-2%) this method is very accurate. Unfortunately, the expense and practicality of building and maintaining a water tank limits access for most. Also, for those with a fear of water, this would obviously not be the preferred method.

Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA)

Replacing underwater weighing as the new “gold standard,” is DEXA. While underwater weighing accurately compartmentalizes FM and FFM, DEXA adds a third compartment by using low-radiation X-rays to distinguish bone mineral. This addition slightly increases the accuracy of DEXA by eliminating some of the guess work associated with individual differences, such as total body water and bone mineral density.

Originally, DEXA scanners were designed to determine and help diagnose bone density diseases. As a result, they can be found in many physicians’ offices. However, a full body scan, which takes only a few minutes, is all that is needed to also determine body fat percentage.

Major disadvantages to this method are its high cost and the need for a well-trained professional to operate the equipment and analyze the results.

Air Displacement (Plethysmography)

A good alternative to more expensive methods, air displacement determines body density using the same principle as underwater weighing, by measuring mass and volume. Clearly, the main difference is that mass and volume are being determined by air displacement rather than water displacement. Using a commercial device (the Bod Pod is most commonly referenced), a person sits in a chamber that varies the air pressure allowing for body volume to be assessed. Air displacement provides a viable alternative for those with a fear of water.

Like many other methods, the expense, availability, and training of personnel Air Displacement requires limit accessibility. Additionally, its accuracy is slightly less than underwater weighing.

Bio-electrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

BIA takes a slightly different approach to measuring FFM. The premise behind BIA is that FFM will be proportional to the electrical conductivity of the body. Fat-tissue contains little water, making it a poor conductor of electricity; whereas, lean tissue contains mostly water and electrolytes, making it an excellent conductor. BIA devices emit a low-level electrical current through the body and measure the amount of resistance the current encounters. Based on the level of impedance, a pre-programed equation is used to estimate body fat percentage.

The most accurate BIA devices use electrodes on the feet and hands to administer the point-to-point electrical current. The margin of error for these devices falls in the range of 3–5%. Portable or handheld BIA devices that only measure lower or upper body conductivity have a higher margin of error (4–8%).

Because BIA devices primarily measure hydration, circumstances that may influence hydration status at the time of measurement must be taken into account. Recent exercise, bladder content, hydration habits, and meal timing can cause wide measurement variations and influence accuracy. However, this method is generally inexpensive, often portable, and requires limited training to use, making it a very practical option.

Skinfold Analysis

Skinfold analysis is a widely used method of assessing body composition because of its simplicity, portability, and affordability. It is also fairly accurate when administered properly. Margins of error are about 4–7%, depending on the quality of the skinfold calipers and skill of the administrator/technician. The assumption of skinfold measurement is that the amount of subcutaneous fat is proportionate to overall body fat. As such, a technician pinches the skin at various sites and uses calipers to measure and record the diameter of the skin folds. These numbers can then be plugged into an equation to generate an estimate of body fat percentage.

The proportionality of subcutaneous fat and overall body fat depends on age, gender, ethnicity, and activity rates. As such, technicians should use the skinfold technique specific to the equation that accounts for those variables to improve accuracy.


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.