A research group at University College Ghent is developing a method to measure body fat using 3D body scanning.

Obesity is a condition in which the amount of fat tissue is increased resulting in adverse effects on health and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality 1. This state of fat accumulation is linked to increased risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, sleep apnoea syndrome and certain types of cancer and a decreased life expectancy.

 The prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased dramatically worldwide and the number of people struggling with obesity today has doubled the past three decades. Among the Belgian adult population, 48% are too heavy for their height: 34% of the adult population are overweight, while 14% suffer from obesity. Overweight is more frequent in men (41%) than women (28%), but there is no difference between men and women with regard to obesity (14%). What is distinctly alarming is that more than half of all individuals in the 45-54 age group are overweight and one of five people in the 55-74 age group are obese 2.

Weight indexes

In both clinical and scientific practice, assessment of body fat is not always possible because of costs, available time or limited access to the necessary measuring devices. Therefore, body weight indexes are often used as a proxy measure for the assessment of the degree of adiposity. The body mass index (BMI), developed by the Belgian scientist Adolphe Quetelet in 1832, is calculated as the ratio of body weight in kg, over body height in meter. According to the World Health Organization, a person with a BMI equal to or more than 25 is considered to be overweight. A person with a BMI of 30 or more is generally considered obese.

Although the BMI is quick and easy to calculate, its accuracy to diagnose obesity has shown to be limited, particularly for individuals in the intermediate BMI ranges 3. Also, the BMI was originally designed to be used at the population level and is therefore not as effective in individual cases because body weight is influenced by more than fat tissue alone. Furthermore, the relationship between BMI and health can vary with ethnicity making global comparisons problematic.

Therefore, it has been suggested that future research on body composition measurement should focus more on body shape and volume rather than body mass. With the advent of 3D body scanning technology, it is possible to obtain accurate and reliable anthropometric measures of an individual. Also, 3D body scans provide information on an individual’s body volume and body shape. Because a body scan results in a digital avatar, the distribution of body mass and fat deposition can be visualised and processed on a higher level compared to manual anthropometric measurements.

Innovative research

At University College Ghent in Belgium a team of researchers is involved in the Anthropometric baseD Estimation of adiPoSity (ADEPS) project. They use state-of-the-art technology like 3D body scanning and air displacement plethysmography to study the extent to which body fat percentage can be predicted using anthropometric measurements. The objective of the ADEPS project is to gauge body fat percentage from readily available anthropometric measures that don’t require sophisticated equipment.

A 3D bodyscanner uses structured white light technology to produce consistent point clouds and body models with a 3D-point accuracy of less than 1 mm. From a set of body scans a procedure is developed to determine total body volume. Derivation of body volume, together with measurement of body mass permits calculation of body density and subsequent estimation of percent fat and fat-free mass.

Using advanced statistical modelling the investigators will identify which anthropometric measurements provided by the body scan are useful predictors for body fat percentage resulting in predictive models. These models will then be validated using a reference method for body fat percentage determination. Resulting predictive equations will be converted into population-specific nomograms for convenient assessment of body fat percentage from simple and manual measurable anthropometrics that are useful in clinical practice and research. In developing this tool, the ADEPS project offers a practical contribution to getting a grip on obesity, the largest preventable health problem of our time.

The results from the ADPES project are to be expected by the end of 2016.


1 Flegal KM, Kit BK, Orpana H et al. (2013) Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Jama-Journal of the American Medical Association 309, 71-82.

2 Drieskens S (2014) Nutritional status. In Belgian Health Interview Survey 2013 Report 2: Health determinants & lifestyle [L Gisle and S Demarest, editors]. Brussels: Scientific Institute of Public Health.

3 Romero-Corral A, Somers VK, Sierra-Johnson J et al. (2008) Accuracy of body mass index in diagnosing obesity in the adult general population. Int J Obes (Lond) 32, 959-966.

Dr Willem De Keyzer

Research project coordinator

University College Ghent






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