I decided to record consistent body fat measurements for myself and a friend using the Halo, a Fitbit bathroom scale and a highly rated skin caliper. In November and December, I took early-morning measurements with the Halo and bathroom scale; my wife pinched my skin folds in four areas with the caliper. I measured my test subject’s body fat once with each device.
Our results were remarkably similar for two men with very different body compositions:
The Amazon product estimated that my friend, a 6-foot-3 man weighing 198 pounds, had 24 percent body fat, the Fitbit scale read 19 percent, and the skin-fold measurements added up to 20 percent.
For myself — 5-foot-6 and about 140 pounds — the Halo said in November that I had 25 percent body fat, the Fitbit scale said 19 percent, and the skin-fold measurements added up to 20 percent. In December, the Halo said I had 26 percent body fat (alas, I had more Thanksgiving leftovers than usual), the Fitbit scale said 20 percent, and the skin-fold measurements added up to 21 percent.
Dr. Cheskin speculated that the Halo might have an overestimating bias in its algorithm because underestimating body fat for an obese person would be more problematic.
Dr. Maulik Majmudar, Amazon’s medical officer, who worked on the Halo, said people should expect the device’s results to be different because the method was more accurate than body fat scales and calipers.
Amazon developed its body-measuring algorithm from a sample set of tens of thousands of images of people’s bodies from across a wide range of demographics, he said. Amazon then did internal tests measuring people’s body fat using the Halo scanner, smart bathroom scales and DEXA, a technique that uses X-rays to scan for bone density, which studies have found to be a reliable measure for body fat. It found that the Halo method was twice as accurate as bathroom scales.
Still, Dr. Cheskin was unconvinced by Amazon’s accuracy claims. He said a valid study would involve a clinical trial measuring body fat of many human subjects with each method — the Halo, DEXA, bioelectrical impedance scales and calipers — and comparing the results side by side.
Accurate or not, the most disappointing part of Amazon’s body fat analysis was that it lacked important context. Even though the app asked for my ethnicity, age and sex, it said my 25 percent body fat level was too high and well outside the “Healthy” zone (roughly 12 to 18 percent). It also said healthy results were associated with longer life and lower risks of heart disease.
Dr. Cheskin offered a more nuanced analysis. Body fat levels may have different health implications depending on your age, ethnicity, sex, cholesterol levels and family history. Waist circumference matters, too, because severe abdominal fat can be associated with health problems.
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