A Healthier U

Want to lose weight? Pay attention to body composition

By Alana Schroeder, web content specialist for the Interactive Marketing & Web Team at University of Utah Health Care

It’s a new year, and just like last year, losing weight is this year’s most popular New Year’s resolution. You may think being thin is your surest path to health.

But have you thought about your body composition lately?

“Body composition is a measurement of a person’s fat mass and fat-free (lean) mass. Testing your body composition can be a great way to monitor and reach realistic health and fitness goals,” says Traci Thompson, director of PEAK Health & Wellness at the University of Utah.

Losing weight vs. healthy body composition

You’ve probably heard it over and over: If you want to be healthy, lose weight!

But when it comes to preventing heart disease and early death, it’s actually more important to be fit than skinny.

“Having a healthy body composition isn’t just about losing weight. Studies show that being fit is more important than how much you weigh when it comes to lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease and mortality,” explains Thompson.

Fat vs. muscle mass

When you lose weight, you will probably also lose muscle mass. But being thin doesn’t necessarily mean you have a low body fat percentage.

Body composition measures the percentage of fat compared to fat-free mass (muscle, bone, and water) in your body.

The key is to have a healthy ratio of fat to muscle. Skeletal muscle and bone density help you perform daily activities and prevent diseases like osteoporosis.

Physical activity paired with a healthy diet can help you lose weight and achieve a body composition that’s healthy for you. Even moderate exercise — 30 minutes most days of the week — can bring big health benefits.

How Is body composition measured?

  • The BOD POD is an egg-shaped chamber that measures body composition through volume and pressure through air displacement. It’s fast, easy and non-invasive and is considered very accurate (+ or – 2percent).
  • The skinfold measurement is fairly quick and moderately invasive. Specialists measure thickness of a skinfold at seven different places on your body. This method can be accurate. But the same person should measure you each time to prevent errors.

The table below shows the body fat percentage that’s generally considered healthy:

Women Men
<15% Risky (low body fat) <5%
15-18% Very lean 5-8%
19-22% Lean 9-12%
23-30% Moderate 13-20%
31-40% Excess fat 21-30%
>40% Risky (high body fat) >30%

A benchmark for health

Body composition is one of the best indicators of overall health. “It can decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic disease, osteoporosis and other diseases,” explains Thompson.

A healthy body composition can also do the following:

  • Improve ability to perform day-to-day activities
  • Increase energy
  • Help maintain cognitive function and decrease stress

Now that’s a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.


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A Healthier U


You may have heard that some diets recommend eating several small meals throughout the day instead of three larger meals. Some diets boast significant health benefits with eating smaller meals throughout the day. The International Society of Sports Nutrition published their position stand on meal frequency in 2011. Here are the findings:
appetizer mini burgers with tomatoes, lettuce and meat balls

  1. Body composition

Increased meal frequency does not play a significant role in decreasing body weight or improving body composition.  Studies of overweight and normal weight individuals found that calories consumed in one meal versus three or five meals did not make a difference in body composition.  At the end of the day, weight loss or weight gain depends entirely on caloric balance.

  1. Blood markers of health

Blood pressure, total and LDL cholesterol, and fasting glucose levels significantly decrease with increased meal consumption.  Additionally, serum insulin levels are decreased, which may decrease body fat deposition.

  1. Metabolism

Even though there is an increase in thermogenesis and fat utilization with the consumption of smaller, more frequent meals, increasing meal frequency does not statistically elevate resting metabolic rate.  However, additional calories are burned in the actual consumption and digestion of additional meals.

  1. Hunger or satiety

Increased meal frequency does decrease feelings of hunger and, consequently, may result in decreased calories consumed in subsequent meals.

  1. Protein metabolism

Protein content of meals is more important in preserving muscle mass than the number of meals consumed in a day.  Research suggests that skeletal muscle mass preservation is optimized at 20-30 grams of high quality protein or 10-15 grams of essential amino acids, per meal.  It is also important to spread protein consumption evenly throughout the day.


La Bounty, et al. (2011) International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8:4.


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A Healthier U

By PEAK Health & Fitness


Body composition is a measurement of a person’s fat mass and fat free (lean) mass. Testing your body composition can be a great way to set, monitor and reach realistic health and fitness goals. General measurements such as weight and BMI can be less specific in relation to a person’s general health and individual goals. Body composition tests are a great way to set a baseline before starting a routine or program and to track progress throughout a program. With any weight loss there will be some loss in lean body mass as well as fat mass. Body composition tests can help you monitor fat loss and muscle maintenance to help you to better reach your health and fitness goals.

Benefited University employees are eligible for no-cost body composition testing at PEAK Health and Fitness through the WellU program. For more information, visit health.utah.edu/peak .


There are several different methods of testing body composition. The gold standard for accuracy, comfort and technology is the BOD POD. This is an egg shaped chamber that measures body composition through volume and pressure through air displacement. This test is considered very accurate (+ or – 2 percent), fast, easy and noninvasive. Another method that is offered is the skinfold measurement. The skinfold method of body composition analysis is fairly quick and moderately invasive. The thickness of a skinfold at seven different sites on the body is measured and used to calculate body fat percentage. This method can be accurate, however it is recommended that the same tester is used each time the test is performed.


Abdominal (visceral) fat
Visceral fat is also known as organ fat or intra-abdominal fat. The fat is packed in between internal organs and torso. Studies have shown a strong correlation between central obesity and cardiovascular disease. Visceral fat is very metabolically active and is resistant to the anti-lipolytic effects of insulin. This means that it is continuously being broken down, circulating in the blood stream and being restored as fat. This process can increase triglyceride and insulin levels in the blood that can lead to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Visceral fat is usually the first fat to be lost during weight loss.

Subcutaneous fat
Subcutaneous fat is found underneath the skin. This fat is less metabolically active and is broken down in the body only when needed. It is used for warmth and protection, as well as storage of extra energy.

Fat-free mass
Fat-free mass is comprised of all of the fat free elements of the body. Some examples of fat free elements include: skeletal muscle, bone and water. It is important to have adequate fat free mass, especially concerning skeletal muscle and bone density to help maintain activities of daily living and to help prevent diseases such as osteoporosis. It is important to eat adequate calories and use resistance training to maintain more fat free mass, especially during weight loss.


Weight loss is often emphasized as a beneficial endeavor in society and pop culture. However mere weight loss is not enough to ensure health benefits. A study looking at the prevalence of all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality in lean and obese and fit and unfit adult males show that being fit is more important than being lean in relation to lowering risk for all-cause and CVD mortality. From these studies it is shown that, with health as the primary goal, weight loss is not the most important factor in reaching that goal. If weight loss is the primary goal studies have shown that a combination of physical activity and a well maintained diet produce the best effect of a decrease in fat mass and a maintenance or increase in muscle mass. Not only is it easier to achieve the goal of weight loss with a combination of physical activity and diet, it is also easier to maintain the weight reduction once the goal has been reached.

Body Fat Norm Table for Women and Men

Women Men
<15% Risky (low body fat) <5%
15-18% Very lean 5-8%
19-22% Lean 9-12%
23-30% Moderate 13-20%
31-40% Excess fat 21-30%
>40% Risky (high body fat) >30%

Norm tables are common guidelines for the general population. For information specific to an individual please consult your health care professional.


A healthy lifestyle including a well maintained diet and adequate physical activity can produce many health benefits and increase quality of life. Some of these health benefits include a decrease in risk for and improve conditions in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic disease, osteoporosis and a host of other diseases. Regular physical activity and maintenance of a healthy body composition can also improve ability to perform activities of daily life, increase energy and help to maintain cognitive function and decrease stress.


The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) suggest moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week or vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week and eight to 10 strength-training exercises, eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise two days a week. Moderate-intensity physical activity means working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat, yet still being able to carry on a conversation. Note that 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity may be necessary for weight loss or weight loss maintenance. The 30-minute recommendation is for the average healthy adult to maintain health and reduce the risk for chronic disease.

Go to PEAK’s Bod Pod page for more information or call 801-585-7325 to schedule an appointment.

1 C. D. Lee, S. N. Blair, and A. S. Jackson Cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality in men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 69, No. 3, 373-380, March 1999
2 M.L. Pollock, G.A. Gaesser, J.D. Butcher, J.P. Despres, R.K. Dishman, B.A. Franklin, C.E. Garber. The Recommended Buality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cariorespiratory and Muscular Fitness, and Flexibility in Healthy Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Vol. 30 #6


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