Does a DEXA Scan Body Fat? Yes, a DEXA (Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry) scan is for measuring more than bone density. It’s used to measure body composition, including body fat, and is considered one of the most accurate methods for body fat measurement. 

I recently received a scan, as a baseline for improving fitness and aging well. Here, I’ll explain everything I’ve learned about these scans as a result.

DEXA Scan body fat

Does DEXA Scan Body Fat?

What is a DEXA scan?

A DEXA scan, short for Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry scan, is a medical imaging test that measures the density of bone and other body compositions. 

DEXA scans use low-dose X-rays at two different energy levels to differentiate between bone mass, fat mass, and lean muscle mass. This allows for a detailed analysis of the distribution of these different tissues throughout the body, including the precise percentage of body fat.

It took me less than 10 minutes to get a scan in a mobile van. And maybe another 10 minutes talking about it afterwards because the potential of this tool is just incredible!

What are the key features of a DEXA scan?

The scan is typically performed in a hospital radiology department, clinic, or, recently, mobile vehicle. You lie on a table while the scanner passes over you, emitting the X-rays.

I received mine in a mobile van, which is becoming increasingly available in major cities.

The amount of radiation used is very low, much less than a standard chest X-ray, for instance. 

Fun Fact: The radiation from a DEXA is much less than that received from a cross-country airline flight.

Difference between DEXA for Medical Evaluation and for Body Composition Analysis

The focus, purpose, and interpretation of the results differ based on the purpose of the scan. If the scan is being used for medical evaluation of bone density or for a comprehensive analysis of body composition.

DEXA Scan for Medical Evaluation

Primary Purpose: The primary aim is to assess bone health, specifically to measure bone mineral density (BMD). This is crucial for diagnosing conditions like osteoporosis or osteopenia.

Focus Area: Typically focuses on specific areas prone to bone weakening, such as the lumbar spine, hip, and sometimes the forearm.

Diagnostic Use: It’s a diagnostic tool for assessing the risk of fractures and monitoring changes in bone density over time. This is especially in response to treatment for bone-related diseases.

Reporting: Results are often reported as a T-score. A T-score compares your bone density to a healthy young adult’s average bone density.

DEXA Scan for Body Composition Analysis

Primary Purpose: Used to analyze the distribution of lean muscle, fat, and bone in the entire body. It’s a method for getting detailed information about body composition.

Focus Area: Scans the whole body rather than focusing on specific bone sites.

Health and Fitness Use: Often utilized in fitness and health assessments to track changes in body composition, like the ratio of fat to lean muscle mass.

Reporting: Results include detailed percentages or mass values for fat tissue, lean muscle mass, and bone mineral content distributed throughout the body.

Full Body Composition Scan Reveals the Following Information

Bone Density Measurement

DEXA scans are the most commonly used method for diagnosing osteoporosis and other conditions that result in bone loss. They measure the mineral content (like calcium) in bones, particularly in high-risk areas such as the hip and spine.

With over half of the U.S. adult population over 50 affected by osteoporosis or low bone mass, DEXA is widely recognized as the gold standard in the medical community for its precision and reliability.

Health professionals often recommend a DEXA scan to evaluate bone health, monitor changes in bone density over time, and provide risk assessment for spine and hip fractures.

By providing a precise measure of bone density, DEXA scans are a critical component in preventing, diagnosing, and managing osteoporosis and other bone-related conditions. 

The difference between a body composition scan and a medical scan for bone density, as explained to me, is that the latter scans only your pelvic area and provides data for determining more precise measurements of bone density.

For body composition, you receive a score based on your bone density relative to the rest of the population. This is not meant to serve as a diagnostic tool, but rather as an indicator of relative bone density. Still quite useful!

Body Composition Analysis

DEXA scans go beyond evaluating bone health, however. They offer a comprehensive body composition assessment, accurately measuring lean mass, fat mass, and bone mass. 

What is body composition?

Body composition refers to fat, bone, water, and muscle proportions in human bodies. 

Unlike weight, which does not distinguish between the types of mass an individual carries, body composition provides a detailed breakdown and helps to understand the distribution of these different components. 

Here are the key elements of body composition:

  • Fat Mass: This includes subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin) and visceral fat (fat surrounding the organs). 
  • Lean Body Mass (LBM): This consists of muscles, organs, bones, and water. It’s everything in the body that is not fat. Lean body mass is associated with metabolism as muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest.
  • Bone Mass: The density and strength of bones in the body, which is crucial for overall health. Bone mass can be affected by age, nutrition, and physical activity.
  • Water: Total body water includes intracellular (inside cells) and extracellular (outside cells) water. Hydration levels can significantly affect body composition measurements.

Why body composition is important?

Excess body fat, particularly visceral fat, is associated with increased risks of various health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Conversely, a higher proportion of lean mass can be indicative of good health.

Athletes often measure their body composition to evaluate their physical fitness, set training goals, and improve performance. I could see from my results that I need to do more resistance training on my lower half, which I haven’t been doing because of an excessive amount of cardio training.

For those looking to lose or manage weight, body composition analysis can provide insights into fat and muscle mass changes, which might not be apparent through weight alone.

Body composition analysis can be used to monitor patients with certain conditions, such as sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), or to assess the effectiveness of nutritional interventions.

Medical personnel evaluating exam

How is DEXA used for body composition analysis?

DEXA differentiates and measures the amounts of bone, fat, and lean muscle tissue within the body. Here’s an outline of the process:

  • Bone mineral density absorbs X-rays more than soft tissue does. The two energy peaks allow the scanner to differentiate between bone and soft tissue, giving a high-resolution image of the underlying bone structure and the soft tissues overlying and surrounding the bones.
  • By measuring the absorption of each beam by the body, the DEXA machine can calculate the amount of fat mass, lean tissue mass, and bone mineral content. Soft tissue measurements are divided into fat tissue and lean tissue mass.

DEXA scans are highly accurate and provide precise measurements of body fat percentage, which is valuable for athletes, people tracking their physical progress, or in medical settings where body composition is relevant to patient care.

Applied Use of a DEXA Scan

  • DEXA scans can be used to track change in body composition over time, making it a valuable tool for monitoring the effectiveness of a nutrition or fitness program or the impact of a medical condition.
  • The detailed information from DEXA scans, including regional fat distribution, can help assess health risks associated with visceral fat and design personalized fitness or rehabilitation programs. I could see for instance, that I have less lean mass on my left lower body, where I have a chronic knee condition and on the right side of my upper body where I have a chronic shoulder injury.
  • DEXA’s precise body composition measurements make it worthwhile for research studies in nutrition, obesity, and various medical conditions affecting body composition.

The scan is quick, non-invasive, and exposes the patient to a very low level of radiation. It’s a highly trusted and pretty cool method for accurately assessing body composition in clinical and research settings.

Who Benefits from a DEXA Scan?

Many people can benefit from a DEXA scan, which serves various purposes, from medical diagnostics to fitness planning. Here are some groups that might find a DEXA scan particularly beneficial:

1. Bone Health in Postmenopausal Women

Women who have gone through menopause are at a higher risk for osteoporosis due to hormonal changes. DEXA scans can monitor bone density and help manage the risk of fractures.

2. Osteoporosis Screening in Older Adults

As people age, their risk for osteoporosis increases. Regular DEXA scans can detect early bone loss and help initiate treatments to strengthen bones.

3. Performance and Training in Athletes

Athletes looking to optimize their body composition for improved performance can use DEXA scans to tailor their training and nutrition plans.

4. People with a Family History of Osteoporosis

Those with a genetic predisposition to osteoporosis can use DEXA scans to take early action against potential bone density loss.

5. People Undergoing Weight Loss Programs

Body fat scans can precisely measure fat loss versus muscle loss, allowing for a more accurate assessment of weight loss progress.

6. Patients on Long-term Steroid Therapy

Chronic steroid use can lead to bone density loss, and DEXA can help in monitoring and managing this side effect.

7. People with Disorders Related to Bone Density

Conditions such as hyperparathyroidism or certain eating disorders that can affect bone density may require monitoring through DEXA scans.

8. Persons with Height Loss

Significant loss in height could be indicative of spinal fractures due to osteoporosis, which can be assessed with a DEXA scan.

9. Patients with Fractures from Minimal Trauma

Those who have experienced fractures from minor falls or injuries may have underlying osteoporosis that can be detected with a DEXA scan.

10. Health and Fitness Enthusiasts

People interested in detailed body composition for personal health or fitness reasons can benefit from the comprehensive analysis provided by DEXA.

11. Researchers in Health Sciences

DEXA scans are valuable for research purposes, collecting and providing accurate bone density and body composition data for various studies.

Therefore, DEXA scans are a valuable tool for diagnosing and monitoring certain medical conditions and for anyone interested in a detailed analysis of their body composition for health and fitness purposes. 

However, people must consult with a healthcare provider to determine whether a DEXA scan is appropriate for their needs and circumstances.

DEXA Scan with patient

Alternative Body Composition Measurement Methods

Various methods are used to assess body composition. Each method has its own level of accuracy and practicality, with DEXA scans being one of the most accurate methods available.

DEXA

Provides highly accurate and precise body composition measurements, including bone mineral density, fat mass, and lean muscle mass.

  • Detail: Offers detailed regional analysis (e.g., arms, legs, trunk).
  • Radiation: Involves a small amount of radiation but is generally considered safe for adults.
  • Cost and Accessibility: DEXAs aren’t that much more expensive or less accessible than other methods, except for BMI and weight estimations which aren’t very imformative.
Body Mass Index (BMI)

A full body weight scan calculation based on height and weight.

  • Lack of Specificity: Does not distinguish between muscle, fat, and bone mass, leading to potential misclassification (e.g., muscular people may be classified as overweight).
  • Accessibility: Can be determined quickly and easily without any special equipment.
  • Usefulness: Most effective for population studies rather than individual diagnostics.
Skinfold Tests

A very basic, practical, and affordable fat scan.

  • Technique-Sensitive: The accuracy can vary based on the skill of the person performing the test and the quality of the calipers.
  • Affordability: Relatively inexpensive.
  • Limitation: Measures subcutaneous fat and may not accurately reflect total body fat or visceral fat.
Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

Provides simple and quick body scans for fat, often requiring you to stand on a scale-like device or hold handheld electrodes.

  • Variability: Accuracy can be influenced by hydration status, recent food intake, and exercise.
  • Convenience: More accessible than DEXA and can be found in many fitness centers and home scales.
  • Scope: Provides an estimate of body fat percentage and sometimes an estimate of lean mass and water percentage.
Alternative body composition methods

Comparisons Between the Different Methods

A DEXA scan is considered the gold standard for body composition analysis due to its accuracy and ability to provide a comprehensive breakdown of different tissues.

A BMI scan is helpful for quick assessments in large populations but needs more precision to inform individual health interventions.

Skinfold tests are practical and cost-effective but are limited by the skill of the examiner and only measure subcutaneous fat.

BIA is convenient and widely available but less reliable due to its sensitivity to factors like hydration status.

Each method has its own place and utility, depending on the precision required, setting, and available resources. 

Methods that provide more detailed information, such as DEXA, are preferred for individual health and performance assessments. BMI or BIA may be more practical for large-scale epidemiological studies or quick screenings.

How can one get a DEXA scan?

Getting a DEXA scan typically involves the following steps.

Doctor’s Evaluation

For Medical evaluation of bone density only: Visit your primary care physician or a specialist to discuss whether a DEXA scan is appropriate for you based on your medical history, risk factors for osteoporosis, or body composition analysis needs.

For Body Composition Analysis: You do not need a doctor’s evaluation for a scan with this purpose.

Prescription or Referral

Medical evaluation of bone density: If a DEXA scan is deemed necessary, your doctor will provide a referral or prescription for the test. This is particularly important if the scan is for medical purposes, as insurance companies often require a doctor’s referral to cover the cost.

You need a referral if you are getting a bone density scan for medical and insurance purposes.

Body Composition Analysis: If you are getting a body composition scan, you do not need a referral but will likely need to pay for it yourself.

Finding a Facility

Look for a hospital, radiology clinic, or specialized medical center that offers DEXA scanning services. Some fitness and wellness centers also have DEXA scanning capabilities, especially for body composition analysis.

In addition, some companies travel to various locations with a mobile DEXA machine. I went with BodySpec and could not be happier with my choices in life.

Insurance and Costs

Medical evaluation of bone density: You can contact your health insurance provider to understand the coverage details and whether the reason for your scan is included in your plan.

You may need to pay out-of-pocket if it’s for non-medical purposes, like fitness tracking.

Body Composition Analysis: Alternatively, you can skip the insurance step and pay yourself. The pricing is extremely affordable. BodySpec offers different packages depending on what your goals are, roughly $40-$60/scan.

Book the Scan

Call the chosen facility to schedule an appointment. You may need to provide a referral from your doctor at this stage.

Pre-Scan Instructions

Follow any specific instructions provided to you. This may include refraining from calcium supplements or wearing loose-fitting clothing without metal fasteners on the day of the scan.

Day of the Scan

The scan is quick and non-invasive. You will lie on a table while the scanner passes over your body. It usually takes about 10 to 20 minutes.

After the Scan

A radiologist will analyze the results and send a report to you or your referring doctor, who will discuss the findings with you. BodySpec sent my results to me within an hour of the scan, which I then shared with my own doctor. BodySpec also offers in-house experts for your support and this seems to be a fairly common practice.

Action Plan

Depending on the results of your DEXA scan and your goals, your doctor or personal trainer may recommend lifestyle changes, supplements, medication, or further testing.

Professional analyzing scan data

FAQs on the DEXA Scan

Are DEXA scans accurate for body fat?

Yes, DEXA scans are highly accurate for measuring body fat and providing detailed body composition analysis, including precise fat distribution, which is crucial for health and fitness assessments.

How much does a DEXA scan cost for fat percentage?

The cost of a DEXA scan for body fat percentage can vary widely, but on average, it may range from $45 to $300, depending on the location, facility, and whether the scan is covered by health insurance.

Can a DEXA scan see visceral fat?

Yes, a DEXA scan can accurately measure visceral fat, clearly assessing fat distribution around internal organs.

Where to get a DEXA scan?

DEXA scans are available at hospitals, radiology centers, some medical clinics, and specific fitness facilities. It’s advisable to check with healthcare providers or search online for local facilities offering this service.

Final Thoughts on Does a DEXA Scan Body Fat

DEXA scans represent a significant advancement in medical imaging, offering many benefits. These scans are the gold standard for assessing bone mineral density, crucial for diagnosing and managing conditions such as osteoporosis. 

Beyond bone health, DEXA scans provide a detailed body composition analysis, distinguishing between fat, muscle, and bone tissues with high accuracy and precision. 

This makes them an invaluable tool for athletes seeking to optimize performance, people on weight management journeys, and healthcare providers monitoring patients for specific medical conditions.

The non-invasive nature of the procedure, combined with its quick execution and low radiation exposure, allows for a patient-friendly experience. 

Moreover, as healthcare moves towards a more preventative model, DEXA scans serve an essential role in identifying risks early on, thereby enabling timely intervention to mitigate future health issues. 

Whether for medical, fitness, or research purposes, the benefits of undergoing a DEXA scan are evident in making informed decisions that contribute to improved health outcomes and quality of life.