Body Fat – When Average Isn’t Good enough

by Brad Pilon

Some bad news today.

If you want to look better than most people, you have to do things differently than most people.

You are going to have to eat a little less and exercise a little more than most people.

Because, what most people are doing simply isn’t getting the job done.

And here is a very startling visual example from recent research:

Picture 4

This graph is telling you three interesting things:

1) Body fat % seems to be pretty normally distributed across the North American population (the woman’s numbers look a little skew right to me, but in general, it’s pretty even).

2) For a man, the average body fat percentage is around 25-ish%, while for a woman it’s around 40-ish%.

3) If you want to be under 12% bodyfat (men) or under 22% bodyfat (women) then you are going to have to be an outlier.

out·li·er – A value that is far from the average or mean.

Now this research was compiled from about 13,000 people between the ages of 20 and 80 using DXA. To me, that’s an OK number of subjects to draw conclusions from.

So here’s the deal – if the prospect of being average doesn’t make you happy, then you have to commit to being different, very different.

Be your own outlier.

Take a look at what everyone is doing and do things just a little differently.

Obviously, obsessing over healthy eating while still eating more than we need to is not giving us the body fat percentage that we want.

Either is watching TV shows about people who are losing weight.

And ‘wanting’ to lose weight is a lot different then taking action to lose weight.

Do things differently.

Be your own outlier.

While everybody else is talking about weight loss, reading about weight loss, watching TV about weight loss you need to actually take action.

This is what will make you different.

No more talking, no more reading, no more thinking…insert Nike Slogan Here.

Eat Less, Move more and be your own outlier.


**Am J Clin Nutr 2009;90:1457–65.


Jordan November 28, 2009 at 3:56 am

Wanting is so much different than action. So true.

A couple of days ago I spent an evening with an old friend that I hadn’t seen for roughly nine years. I was glad to see her, but was also really embarrassed that she saw me like this. I’m probably 50-60 pounds heavier than when she saw me last. That really motivated me to stop wanting and start doing. I finally feel like I’m on a diet and not just thinking about going on a diet. Maybe not the most normal time for an American to go on a diet- Thanksgiving! lol. But it feels right and I’m ready to do this.

Thank you, and also John, for the common sense. We all need it. Desperately. I know I do.

Josh November 28, 2009 at 4:20 am

Great post Brad.

Wow I didnt know the average BF was that high.

For men, 5-7% BF is basically shredded
10-15 BF is good to decent shape
An average of 25% is tons!

And you’re completely right, obsessing over health like the latest superfoods – goji berries and acai isnt doing us any good. Neither is watching the Biggest Loser.

People just have to man up and take control of their own body and health.

JC November 28, 2009 at 6:17 am

I knew that average was high(er) on the % scale, but didn’t realize it was quite this high. Of course this is, in my opinion, a direct effect of our lush, lazy lifestyle. It’s also a result of our readily available soda pop, bags of chips etc. you’re right, if we want to be outside the norm, we must choose to be an outlier.

great stuff as always, Brad.

Kelley November 28, 2009 at 7:37 am

Whoa! Average BF for women is 40%?!?! That is really sad; disturbing actually. Brad, you are sooooooo right. Enough reading about it, watching it, researching it- it’s time to just get it done. For me, doing something different is means doing two 24hr. fasts per week. I no longer care to be ‘average’.

Jacqueline November 29, 2009 at 1:18 am

I guessed the 25%, but the 40% kinda made me choke! I guess I can be glad that the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) of McDonalds etc doesn’t appeal to me. I do still need some more action on my part to get really lean. Thanx for this post, rude but necessary wake-up call

Ali November 29, 2009 at 1:22 am

Are you serious? 40% for women? Hey, and no one took MY body fat%. i would be sub 20 for sure.

Rc November 29, 2009 at 1:31 am

Wow I didn’t know the average percent of body fat for both men and women are that high. Brad is right stop talking and reading about fat lose and be like nike just do it.

Queen Kat November 29, 2009 at 1:35 am

As always Brad, your message is right on the money… hype just straight talk. It’s just like the proverbial treadmill in the bedroom with so many clothes hanging on it it is unrecognizable as a piece of exercise equipment. I fast 3X a week, and restrict calories on other days while still eating healthy, clean food. Grass fed meat, pastured poultry, lots of veggies, lots of water and stay away from grains, pastas, breads, etc. except when I’m having a “feast” day. I work out 3X a week (on fast days). Your great advice has helped me finally burn off belly fat that wouldn’t budge for years! I may not weigh much less but my clothes feel so much better. Thanks again Brad!!

Bart November 29, 2009 at 1:35 am

Great post on Gladwell’s idea of “outliers”. I believe it was Earl Nightingale that once said “if you want to be successful then look at what the 95% of people are doing and then do exactly the opposite and you will have a much greater chance at success.” Thanks for the post Brad, your book Eat Stop Eat is a great read, but more importantly works very well!

Keats Snideman November 29, 2009 at 1:35 am

Great post Brad as usual…People should be very afraid to be “average!’ Of course now being in the official “holiday” season, millions of people are waiting to take action until next year; the new year. Like that ever works. I always say “look, if something is important, then take action on it now…why wait” Weight control must not be that important to people or we’d have a lot more leaner people walking around!

Denise DeGrazia November 29, 2009 at 1:44 am

The sorry BF averages for women are due to several things. Women have less muscle mass than men to start with. And then there is what I call the “pink dumbell syndrome” where women say “I don’t want/need /care to lift heavy weights because 1) I will “bulk” up 2) It’s too hard and I don’t want look like some freaky body builder or 3)Ewww!! i might get all musclely and have callouses on my hands!
Honey, you will not “bulk” up because A) you don’t have a Y chromosome and B) you don’t produce enough testosterone to get big and C) if you are “bulking” you might consider eating less!! Step away from the Frappa- latte-Chino right now! And yes you can gain fast 2X a week and gain muscle. You won’t look like the incredible hulk if you lift heavy and you will save time at the gym while getting strong and lean. I hate it that women are patronized by the fitness industry and sold a load of BS like programs that are boring cardio and lot’s of high reps and low weights.
ESE and heavy weights have gotten me in the best shape of my life. I’m 57 and people are amazed when they see me deadlift 2X my body weight. And no, I don’t look like the Hulk. And I can do real pullups and push ups. Women need to stop selling themselves short and put down the pink dumbells right now. Oh yes, and fast 2X a week instead of eating all the time. Grazing is for cows.

Maggi November 29, 2009 at 2:01 am

I’m not sure where the scholarly support is for what constitutes a healthy %age of bodyfat. However, this information can’t mean good things for America. Each person does have personal responsibility, but it sure would be nice if there were more cultural support for eating mostly whole foods in moderate quantities and being more active. I’ve have several times when I was able to do it. I felt no resistance to what I needed to do at those times. What I haven’t learned to do is handle the situations over and over when my in-the-moment desire overrides my long-term goal. Bottom line is, just do it, I guess. Best to everyone in their efforts at balance and sanity in their lives.

jerry November 29, 2009 at 2:17 am

Age is one factor that isn’t taken into consideration. As you get older it’s harder to maintain low BF. If I check my BF by Navy method my BF is 18%, but my scale, which show BF, is 21%. I’m not sure if scale is accurate.

Vikki November 29, 2009 at 2:45 am

hey – what is the best way to measure body fat? the little hand-held impedance one I have seem to vary so much with hydration state or some other factor, its all over the place and makes no sense.

Bob Garon November 29, 2009 at 2:46 am

Great post Brad!

This is why I do what I do and encourage what I encourage people to do on a daily basis. If it was easy to be in shape and healthy then more people would be there. It take a lot of work and people are generally lazy… so they get fat and sick.

I always say: Your actions must reflect your goals.

Alex November 29, 2009 at 3:00 am

Not pleasant reading there, sadly USA is not the leader in this problem either …….

The core thing here is to ‘not want to be average’ its tough, you may stand out from the crowd, but the benefits pay bigger dividends

Kassandra Bragg November 29, 2009 at 3:32 am

WOW this has absolutely floored me! I guessed around 30% for women but WOW. This means that the average woman is in the OBESE category for body fat! No wonder we have a health care crisis in this country! And the sad part is for the most part it’s self inflicted with the help of the lovely food industry (ever notice nobody on either side of the isle ever has to balls to bring up how these frankenfoods are contributing to the healthcare issue? Wonder why*insert sarcasm*).

I can solve the health care crisis right now, eat real food, lift weights. By cutting out garbage food (How the heck is is possible that a bag of corn chips has more calories than 3 whole ears of corn????) You’d reduce your calories just by eating real food alone. Pick up some weight’s put on some muscle and recompose your body. So simple, yet you get treated like you belong in a freak show for saying it. Go figure!

Brad Pilon November 29, 2009 at 4:12 am


If I had to pick someone to be the definition of’d be her. In the most envious of ways, you my wasp-waist, 8 pack friend, are a freak 😉


Crystal S November 29, 2009 at 5:32 am

I guessed completely right.

Only because I have been keeping track of my own BF% and so I know what I’m looking at when I see others around me as well.

I live in Sydney, Australia, and I’d say the same averages would apply here also. Most people are completely unaware that they are overfat at all. It’s been ‘normalised’ to be overweight now, so much so that people panic and curse and jump up and down about how thin models are in an over the top reactionary way- and you wonder how much of it is about their own sense of denial about just how overweight they are themselves (when they look around and see/think they’re just “average”).

Irene November 30, 2009 at 3:11 am

Brad, i love your writings. Always just what I need to knock me on my way to meet my goals! Keep up the good work!

Ty November 30, 2009 at 3:30 am

I wonder how much age plays a factor in body composition? All the information that we see about weightloss, is it for 20-30 year olds? Is it relevant if you are 40 or 50? The averages in the table are taken from a range of ages 20-80. I wonder how many older people were in the group and whether that skews the results, especially for the females. But it is a good message, nothing will happen until you take action. What’s your next action?

Brad Pilon November 30, 2009 at 5:36 am

Hi Ty,

here are the age breakdowns:

Age [n (weighted %)]
20–39 y = men 2183 (41.0); women 2018 (36.2)5
40–59 y = men 2024 (38.9); women 2049 (38.7)3
60–79 y = men 1851 (17.2); women 1846 (20.2)5
+80 y = men 501 (3.0); women 594 (4.9)5

If I had to eyeball it this would indicate around 65% of the study population was under 60…


Kim November 30, 2009 at 6:26 am

Hi Brad,

Do you have a link or cite for the original paper?

Thanks in advance!

Broc November 30, 2009 at 8:52 am

Brad, you need to see this. Your photos were stolen for a scam site. See below (in the ‘comment’ section on the site, under the handle “JackMan”:

This is part of the monster affiliate scam going on with Acai berries online. Acai Force Max is this company out of Greece that is shilling bullshit Acai berry supplements as the “hollywood secret” used by Brad Pitt, Gerard Butler, and Hugh Jackman (I’m sure none of them even knew what Acai berries were when they filmed the moves these sites are claiming that the berries were used for)… these affiliate landing pages are all over myspace, facebook, and damn near any site who uses any sort of banner advertising. Their international base of operations (they’re across the pond and thus out of U.S. jurisdiction) and unstoppable affiliate program makes them somewhat untouchable it seems.

In any case, since you’re one of the good guys, and a well-known expert with an online presence, maybe you can do something about this, since they’re stealing your photos to sell their crap.

My interest in this, by the way, is that I’m a freelance copywriter and Marine who’s familiar with you and your site (I bought your e-book while I was deployed with the Marine Corps to Kuwait last year). I recognized the photo they use on that site from your blog and thought I should sound the alarm.

I’m so sick of people using persuasion to scam the masses.

Thanks for being one of the good guys Brad, hope this helped some.

adriana November 30, 2009 at 9:05 am

Hey Brad-thanks so much for the great post.
Could you please discuss the best ways to measure body fat in an upcoming post. I’ve never measured mine but am really curious.

Leslee November 30, 2009 at 10:03 pm

I’m a university professor and one of my students did a presentation on obesity two weeks ago. She passed out charts that would help students to calculate their BMIs and several girls were upset to discover that they were well into the “overweight” category. Looking these 19-to-20 year old girls over, I was surprised to realize that they were, to my eye, totally “average.” Neither fat nor thin. Which just goes to show that our VISUAL perception of “average” is actually an overweight person – but we’re so used to seeing this particular shape that we accept it as average and no longer see it as overweight.

Does that make sense?

On the same token, I’ve overheard my female students gossiping about thin girls and describing them as “anorexic” or “she needs to eat a cheese burger.” Funny thing, though, that when considered objectively the thin girl is nowhere near anorexic or underweight at all, but rather just looks so different from the “average” that she really stands out.

Anyway, at least the girls were distressed to discover they were overweight. The fat boys just laughed about it.

Ty December 1, 2009 at 7:25 am

Thanks Brad! You’re a wealth of stats!!!

Cooper December 1, 2009 at 4:09 pm


What’s your opinion of DEXA vs other bodyfat measuring methods? The reason I ask is that I think these numbers are on the high side because DEXA scans were used. I was consistently getting calliper readings of around 15% bodyfat from multiple different people doing the measurements but when I did a DEXA scan, it came back at 25%!

I remember also reading a website one time (the name escapes me) that said body builders and the like that report 3 -4% bodyfat are deluding themselves, and that achieving results that low is completely impossible if you were to use gold standard methods of measuring.


Anna @ pathtofatloss December 2, 2009 at 3:49 am

Hi Brad, really great post. I didn’t even think it was that high for women. That is serious! The other thing that I like is I am actually an outlier 🙂 Thanks to ESE I can workout hard, eat like I have a life, and still be an outlier.

Just DO it!


Alice December 10, 2009 at 4:05 am


This isn’t really a direct response to your post. I just want to say thanks for what you do. (Can’t remember if I have before but I just felt the need!) You deserve some kind of medal for debunking all the fitness industry’s bullshit and I wish everyone trying to lose weight/get in shape finds your blog. Your basic philosophy of “just eat less” has saved from all the ridiculous fat gram counting protein guzzling obsessing… and it’s helped me recover from an eating disorder too. (It wasn’t the life threatening kind, but it sure did suck.) I am now getting into the shape I want to be in, and I feel so healthy doing it.

Thank you, thank you thank you.


Owen December 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

Paralyzation by analyzation is the term that immediately popped into my head. I’m more guilty of this than anyone I know. Great article! …as usual.

arthritisremedy January 11, 2010 at 7:42 pm

The most effective way to lose body fat is through exercise. You just do some cardio workout everyday like jogging and running for miles. That would effectively burn the fats in your body.

Brad Pilon January 11, 2010 at 10:39 pm


Adi March 19, 2010 at 1:54 am

already an outlier. on the other side. didn’t require much to get there.

FitMarker August 19, 2010 at 11:48 am

The sad thing is that while it’s shocking when we see specific statistics and become aware of how many obese people we encounter on a daily basis, nothing is going to change.

We are simply too comfortable in our current lifestyle where everything is at our fingertips. Who wants to get up and do anything if you don’t have to?

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: