In this article we look at body composition analysis, what it is and how it works. We consider how this type of measurement can help us to evaluate the health of our body and how the information can be used to help with weight loss.
What is body composition analysis?
Body composition analysis is a tool that can measure what the structure of your body is like, internally. Your body is composed of cells, which make up our bone structure and muscles, as well as other tissues and organs. Your body also contains water and fat. Most of us tend to pay some attention to our weight but have little knowledge or understanding of these other items. Body composition analysis (or assessment) can help to evaluate your general health status as it measures items like fat, bone, muscle and water mass. Repeated measurements, over a period of time, can help to evaluate whether a diet and (or) lifestyle change is making a difference, not just to your weight, but also to the health of your body inside.
How does body composition analysis work?
Body composition analysis uses a technique called bioimpedance. The actual session consists of a scale and a small machine, which are connected to a computer that collects and displays the results. You can do a one-off session, or repeat the measurements over time to assess changes in the composition of your body.
The foundations of bioimpedance analysis were established in the 1970s and have been used increasingly over the years, in clinical settings, by medical practitioners, nutritionists and others to look at the health of individuals. In summary, bioimpedance works because body tissues have electrical properties, which can be measured. Bio-impedance machines send a slight electrical charge through your body and measures the resistance. From this, information can be obtained about your body composition – how much fat, muscle, water your body contains and more. Looking a little deeper, water contains electrolytes which conduct the electrical current through the body. Lean body mass is typically 73% water. Fat within the body allows almost no electricity to pass through, whilst it passes easily through water (much of which is found in the muscles). The machine measures the resistance to the electrical current and from there it can measure the proportion of water, muscle and fat in the body.
Body composition analysis can be used in clinical settings where weight management or monitoring is required.
What measurements are made and what do they mean?
A number of measurements are given in a body composition analysis session, beyond simply measuring your weight, including:
Body fat mass and percentage
Body fat is a natural part of being human and required by everyone´s body. Our metabolism needs energy, so some energy is stored as fat, ready to be used when required. Body fat percentage is the amount of body fat as a proportion of your body weight. The healthy range varies by age and gender. Women naturally have a higher proportion of body fat than men, as do people in older age groups, with fat mass being highest amongst the over 60´s.
Total body water mass and percentage
Total body water mass is the total amount of fluid in your body. The total body water mass percentage is the amount of fluid in your body, as a proportion of body weight. Body water percentage varies by gender and age, but the healthy range for females it is around 45% to 60% and for males 50% to 65%.
Different tissues in the body contain different levels of water. For example, muscle is approximately 75% water, whereas areas of fat contain approximately 10%. Body fat mass percentage and total body water percentage tend to have an inverse relationship – as the percentage of body fat increases, the total body water percentage tends to decrease.
This is the actual physical size of the muscles in your body, so this measurement gives you the weight of the muscle in your body.
This is the amount of bone in the body.
Fat free mass
This is everything in the body that is NOT body fat. (It is not the same as lean body mass). It includes internal organs, bone, muscle, water, blood and connective tissues.
Visceral fat rating
Visceral fat is the deep internal fat in the abdomen, which wraps around the organs. A reading of 12 or less is considered healthy – numbers above this indicate that you have high levels of fat wrapped around your organs and may be at increased risk for some health conditions.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
BMI looks at your weight in relation to your height. The measurement is a number, which is classified into 4 categories: underweight, healthy, overweight and obese. It is quite a simple measurement, which you can do at home without these scales. For more detailed information, read our earlier article what is body mass index and does it matter.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR)
Your BMR is the minimum level of energy your body uses at rest. Even when we sleep, we still need energy to make our heart beat and to keep the circulatory, respiratory and other systems moving and all our organs working. Roughly 70% of the calories we consume every day are used for our basal metabolism.
Metabolic age is an indication of the average calendar age associated with the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Ideally your metabolic age should be similar to your actual age. If your metabolic age is higher than your actual age, this indicates that your body is out of balance and you might be experiencing some level of poor health. If the metabolic age is less than your actual age, it means that your BMR is better than other people of a similar chronical age and is an indicator that your body is in good health when compared to the average population.
This is one measurement that is said to indicate the health of the cell, in particular the membrane (the outer lining of the cell). There are some mathematics behind this measurement, but essentially a low phase angle is taken to indicate poorer cell membrane, suggesting that the cells are in poorer health (so you are more likely to be experiencing health problems). Higher phase angle measurements are associated with people in better health.
How does body composition analysis help with health?
So, this body composition analysis session provides lots of different measurements on the internal health of your body, but how does that help with your health?
Excess levels of body fat can contribute to certain illnesses or health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Fat cells, as well as storing energy, can also produce hormones and inflammatory substances, both of which can affect or influence the functioning of our body. Knowledge of the fat percentage in our body can help us to make different lifestyle decisions, for example, what to eat, or our activity levels. A body composition session will provide an actual percentage of body fat and then classify that as under-fat (below the healthy body fat range), healthy, overfat and obese. A reading of under-fat, overfat and obese can all lead to increased risk for health conditions. Sometimes counting the numbers can act as inspiration or motivation for making lifestyle or dietary changes.
Body water is needed to help build cells, regulate our temperature, moisturise the skin and more. We can lose water through sweat, urine and breathing. As we exercise the level of water loss can increase, which is why drinking plenty of water is very important. Many people are chronically under-hydrated. Whilst at the retreat, for people participating in the activity programme, we recommend that guests drink at least three to four litres of water per day to hydrate and assist with detoxing. (Remember, you can also get water by eating raw and/or natural foods and drinking herbal teas – but not by drinking caffeine or alcohol).
As mentioned above, body water / fat / muscle percentage are inter-related. If a reading indicates that you have a higher level of body fat, lower levels of muscle and lower levels of water, improving your hydration and increasing your activity levels, to build muscle, will help to improve these numbers – you will notice a decrease in the proportion of body fat and it should also lead to a decrease in the actual mass of body fat. Remember, some body fat is essential (it is needed by the body to provide energy) however some body fat is storage, which is not needed. Excess fat, excess weight, particularly if this fat is distributed around the waist area, can increase the risk of health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
Visceral fat is the hidden fat. It tends to increase as we age, and for women increases more after the menopause. Healthy levels of visceral fat can help to reduce the risk of health conditions like insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease. Visceral fat is not directly linked to weight or body physique – skinny people can have high levels of visceral fat, just as much as overweight people. Once you know the level of visceral fat in your body, you can make lifestyle choices to reduce this fat, including taking regular exercise and making changes to diet. Taking exercise for 30 minutes each day can help to reduce both body fat and visceral fat. Some researchers suggest that cortisol (the hormone that increases as your stress increases) can influence the amount of visceral fat that is stored, so taking steps to reduce stress can also help to reduce visceral fat. Cutting out processed foods and increasing the amount of natural foods and good sources of protein can also help. (For more information on vegan protein sources read our earlier article vegan protein – what is it and how do it get it?)
Exercise can help to change both your BMR and BMI. For people wanting to lose weight, a low BMR will make it harder to lose body fat and overall weight. Muscle cells take more energy to maintain, compared to fat cells. This means that people with more muscle than fat tend to have a faster metabolism. Therefore, if you can increase your muscle mass, your energy consumption will increase. This can help to lose weight in a healthy way and also contribute to reducing excess body fat levels. Weight bearing exercise like yoga can help with this, so too can walking and other forms of exercise. For people wanting to lose weight, when they start exercising, they might feel a little disheartened, as their weight might not seem to change. However, the composition of their body is likely to be changing for the better (more muscle mass, higher water content), which means their health is improving. They might also see changes in their body physique, as their body starts to tone.
Diets that make large restrictions in energy (very low-calorie diets) can slow down your metabolism, which is why crash diets tend not to work. It is important to eat enough calories. To maintain a stable weight, the number of calories IN, should equal the number of calories OUT (i.e. this is your BMR plus exercise). To lose weight consistently over time, consuming slightly fewer calories than you put in would see a slow and steady decline in weight. Each activity uses up energy. Generally, the more vigorous the activity is, the more calories are used up. Walking, bike riding, salsa, vacuuming the house all use calories and can help to improve the muscle mass.
These body composition analysis sessions are incredibly informative, if the measurements are taken as tools for education and for making changes, to diet and lifestyle. However, measurements can be affected by hydration levels in the body, menstruation and are not suitable for some people (e.g. if you have a pacemaker or are pregnant). Please remember, if you do embark on weight loss or lifestyle change, we recommend that you seek appropriate support and advice. This is not a substitute for medical advice.
Weight loss retreats
Body composition analysis can help us to understand our body in a deeper way. For those people who want to lose weight, this session can help to understand what you need to do. If repeated measurements are taken over time, it can also act as motivation, as you can visibly see numbers change. All guests can book a body composition analysis session (and a follow-up) at the retreat.
La Crisalida offer weight loss retreats that run all year around. By combining juicing or eating healthy plant-based food, with daily walks, yoga and other exercise classes you can start to see changes not only in your weight, but also in your body shape. Contact us for availability. More articles are available on the blog and you can also read about our activities here.
To your health and wellbeing.
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).