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Table 1 Body composition methods

From: International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition

Method Components measured/estimated Strengths Limitations
Skinfold thickness Subcutaneous fat thickness in specific sites of the body Reliable method for assessing regional fatness. Useful for monitoring fat changes in children due to their small body size, and their fat stores are primarily subcutaneous, even in obese children (though increasing degrees of obesity lower the viability of this method). Most skinfold calipers have an upper limit of 45–60 mm, limiting their use to moderately overweight or thin subjects. Measurement reliability depends on the skill and experience level of the technician, which varies, and type/brand of caliper used. The best use of this method is the monitoring of raw values, rather than assuming an accurate representation of body composition.
Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) and bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy (BIS) Total body water (TBW), which is converted to FFM via the assumption that 73% of the body’s FFM is water Economical, safe, quick, minimal participant participation and technician expertise. Capable of determining body composition of groups and monitoring changes within individuals over time. BIS or multi-frequency BIA, is capable of delineating TBW into intracellular water (ICW) and extracellular water (ECW), which allows for an estimation of body cell mass. Validity of BIA and BIS is population-specific; it’s influenced by sex, age, height, disease state, and race. BIA/BIS underestimates FFM in normal-weight individuals and overestimates FFM in obese individuals compared to DXA. Validity of single-frequency BIA and multifrequency BIA may be limited to healthy, young, euhydrated adults.
Hydrodensitometry (also called hydrostatic weighing or underwater weighing) Body weight on land and weight in water, body volume, body density, and residual lung volume Good test-retest reliability, accurate in determining body density, lengthy history and track record of consistent use in sports and clinical settings. Relies upon subject performance (completely exhaled, submerged). Errors in measurement of residual lung volume can confound the assessment of body composition. The density of FFM is an assumed constant but can vary with age, sex, race, and training status.
Air displacement plethysmography (ADP) Total body volume, and total body fat (FFM and FM) High reliability for body fat percentage, body density, and residual lung volume in adults. Non-invasive, quick, no radiation exposure or subject performance demands. Same-day test-retest reliability has been reported to be slightly better than hydrodensitometry Tends to over-estimate fat mass compared to DXA and the 4C model. Disease states can reduce accuracy. Inconsistency of clothing and facial/body hair and exercise prior to testing can alter repeatability. Expensive apparatus.
Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) Total and regional body fat, LM, bone mineral density High accuracy and reproducibility for all age groups. Non-invasive, quick, no subject performance needed. Measurements are not confounded by disease states or growth disorders. Gold standard for diagnosing osteopenia and osteoporosis. Small amount of radiation exposure. Fat mass estimates are confounded by trunk thickness (error increases alongside degree of trunk thickness). Compared to 4C, DXA may be unreliable for longitudinal studies of subjects who undergo major changes in glycogen or hydration status between measurements. Expensive apparatus.
Ultrasound Tissue layer thickness (skin, adipose, muscle) Highly repeatable, readily available, widely used, portable, quick. Noninvasive and no ionizing radiation. Accurate and precise estimates of fat thickness in multiple sites of the body, capable of measuring the thickness of muscle and bone. Requires a skilled, experienced technician. Measurement procedures and techniques are not yet standardized. Inherent confounders such as fascia can complicate the interpretation of results. Higher cost than field methods.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography Total and regional fat (including subcutaneous and visceral), skeletal muscle, organs and other internal tissues, lipid content in muscle and liver High accuracy and reproducibility. MRI does not involve exposure to radiation. Expensive, lengthy procedure. Limited to accommodating normal to moderately overweight individuals, but not very large body sizes do not fit in the field of view. High radiation exposure with computed tomography.
Near-infrared interactance (NIR) Fat, protein, and water – based on assumptions of optical density Good test-retest and day-to-day reliability. Quick, non-invasive. Large standard errors of estimation (SEE > 3.5% BF). Percent body fat is systematically underestimated, and this error increases alongside larger body frames.