Body Composition Analysis

Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) is a commonly used method for estimating body composition, and in particular body fat. Since the advent of the first commercially available devices in the mid-1980s the method has become popular owing to its ease of use, portability of the equipment and it’s relatively low cost compared to some of the other methods of body composition analysis. It is familiar in the consumer market as a simple instrument for estimating body fat. BIA actually determines the electrical impedance, or opposition to the flow of an electric current through body tissues which can then be used to calculate an estimate of total body water (TBW). TBW can be used to estimate fat-free body mass and, by difference with body weight, body fat.

Many of the early research studies showed that BIA was quite variable and it was not regarded by many as providing an accurate measure of body composition. In recent years technological improvements have made BIA a more reliable and therefore more acceptable way of measuring body composition. Nevertheless, it is not a "gold standard" or reference method.

Although the instruments are straightforward to use, careful attention to the method of use (as described by the manufacturer) should be given.

Simple devices to estimate body fat, often using BIA, are available to consumers as body fat meters. These instruments are generally regarded as being less accurate than those used clinically or in nutritional and medical practice. They tend to under-read body fat percentage.

Dehydration is a recognized factor affecting BIA measurements as it causes an increase in the body's electrical resistance, so has been measured to cause a 5 kg underestimation of fat-free mass i.e. an overestimation of body fat.

Body fat measurements are lower when measurements are taken shortly after consumption of a meal, causing a variation between highest and lowest readings of body fat percentage taken throughout the day of up to 4.2% of body fat.

Moderate exercise before BIA measurements lead to an overestimation of fat-free mass and an underestimation of body fat percentage due to reduced impedance. For example, moderate intensity exercise for 90–120 minutes before BIA measurements causes nearly a 12 kg overestimation of fat-free mass, i.e. body fat is significantly underestimated. Therefore, it is recommended not to perform BIA for several hours after moderate or high intensity exercise.

BIA is considered reasonably accurate for measuring groups, or for tracking body composition in an individual over a period of time, but is not considered sufficiently accurate for recording of single measurements of individuals.

Consumer grade devices for measuring BIA have not been found to be sufficiently accurate for single measurement use, and are better suited for use to measure changes in body composition over time for individuals. Two-electrode foot-to-foot measurement is less accurate than 4-electrode (feet, hands) and eight-electrode measurement. Results for some four- and eight-electrode instruments tested found poor limits of agreement and in some cases systematic bias in estimation of visceral fat percentage, but good accuracy in the prediction of resting energy expenditure (REE) when compared with more accurate whole-body magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA).

Example of a Body Composition Analysis

Defining the results.
  • Fat: Fat is the energy storage of the body. Everyone needs fat in their bodies, but it is important not to have too much.
  • Fat Free Mass (FFM): This value is, literally, what would be left after all the fat was removed from the body. FFM is also referred to as Lean Body Mass (LBM).
  • Lean Dry Mass (LDM): Lean Dry Mass is what would remain if 100% of the water was extracted from FFM.
  • Total Body Water (TBW): The amount of water in the body. Since fat is approximately 14% water, TBW is approximately 73 % of FFM.
  • Intracellular Water (ICW): This is the portion of Total Body Water that is located within the cells.
  • Extracellular Water (ECW): This is the portion of Total Body Water that is located outside of the cells. Some examples of where ECW is found include blood plasma, spinal fluid and interstitial fluid.
  • Target Weight: This value can be manually entered. Otherwise, it is calculated using a set of standardized formulas.
  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): The number of calories that a person will use per day lying still andbreathing.
  • Daily Energy Expenditure (DEE): People generally don’t lay in bed all day, doing nothing, but breathing. To estimate how many calories a person actually burns in a day, the program will adjust the BMR based on what you entered as the person’s daily activity level.
  • Phase Angle (PA): Phase Angle is utilized by practitioners and researchers as a general health indicator.