Body fat, although usually unwanted, actually serves us many benefits like temperature control and hormone regulation, but also serves as a protective cushion to absorb any physical impacts of trauma. However, some types of body fat, in excess, can set you up for disease.

Body fat distribution is unique to each and every one of us. Where and how much body fat we store is based on several factors, like genetics, lifestyle, age, and gender. However, not all body fat is the same, and therefore not all body fat is bad.

One type of fat is considered to be actually good for us while another type is very detrimental to our health. Knowing the different types of fat and how they are affected can help you with your weight management goals and overall health.

Types of Body Fat

Brown Fat (Good)

Brown fat is considered a “good fat” to have since it helps to reduce the amount of bad fat build-up. However, we usually only have a small amount since brown fat is much harder to produce. Primarily used for body temperature regulation, brown fat increases with colder climates. Exposure to cold environments increases the amount of brown fat your body will make. Therefore, taking a cold plunge may help with weight loss in a few different ways.

“Chronic or intermittent exposure to cold has been purported by some studies to stimulate energy expenditure and promote metabolism” (Reas, Dahlgren, Wonderlich, & Rø, 2019)

Brown fat typically accumulates primarily around the neck, shoulders, chest, and abdomen. Protects against obesity by increasing metabolic activity, therefore the more brown fat you have, the less bad fat, like subcutaneous and visceral fat, you accumulate.

Subcutaneous Fat (Excess is Bad)

Subcutaneous fat is visible and pinchable. The fat we can squeeze in our hands. Also, the fat that cosmetically may be unwanted. However, this type of fat is not largely impactful to our health as it lies on the outer layer of our body. Too much, of course, can lead to negative health outcomes from hormones and inflammation, but otherwise does not impact major organ function nearly as much as visceral fat does.

Subcutaneous fat distribution tends to be genetically influenced. Therefore, your body type and fat distribution will likely resemble your family heritage. This is where genetically, your fat cells have accumulated and unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about our genetic influences. However, your lifestyle choices along with your genetics will impact your overall health.

Benefits of SubQ Fat
  • Stores energy for later use
  • Padding and protection of internal organs & bones
  • Insulation for body heat
Complications from Excess SubQ fat
  • Excess calories stored as triglycerides which increase risk for heart disease when released into the bloodstream
  • Releases excess hormones that can alter the metabolic function and contribute to disease

Visceral Fat (Very Bad)

In contrast to subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is very harmful to health in high amounts. Visceral fat can’t necessarily be pinched as it accumulates on the inside of the abdominal wall and builds up around organs. Eventually, fat impairs organ function, and disease results. Fatty liver disease is common with higher visceral fat, which leads to more insulin resistance and increased risk for diabetes, and more weight gain.

Visceral fat is influenced primarily by diet and lifestyle habits, but also age. As we get older certain hormone levels to change, like a decline in estrogen and testosterone. Estrogen plays a big role in where fat is distributed and with age comes more abdominal fat accumulation. Testosterone contributes to muscle mass building and less muscle means a slower metabolism.

Effects From Too Much Body Fat

Having too much body fat can interrupt normal cellular function and cause the body to gain more fat at a faster rate. This cycle continues until either disease results or lifestyle changes are made.

Increased risk of premature death and disability is related to excess body fat from increased blood pressure, higher blood sugar and insulin levels that raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and certain types of cancers (breast, uterine, colorectal, and pancreatic).

One of the main reasons that too much body fat affects health is that fat cells, or adipocytes, play a significant role in your metabolism and metabolic function by releasing hormones.

Hormones that are stored and secreted by fat cells:
  1. Leptin – Enhances metabolism and reduces appetite, levels increase with more fat to protect against too much weight gain, but may become resistant to leptin’s signals and continue to gain weight.
  2. Adiponectin – Improves insulin sensitivity to regulate blood sugar levels, reduced levels with more weight gain cause increased risk for insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
  3. Estrogen – Stored and produced by fat cells, with increased weight also comes with an increased risk for breast cancer.
  4. Angiotensin – Regulates blood pressure by acting on blood vessel constriction along with water and sodium intake.

“Adiponectin is a fat-derived hormone that appears to play a crucial role in protecting against insulin resistance/diabetes and atherosclerosis. Decreased adiponectin levels are thought to play a central role in the development of type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease in humans” (Achari & Jain, 2017)

How to Measure Body Fat

There are a few different ways, but most of these methods only give you a good ballpark. To accurately measure types of body fat you need imaging studies like ultrasound, DEXA, CT, or MRI, which unless you have a medically necessary reason for these tests, your insurance is likely to deny them. No worries, here are some other methods to measure your body fat.

  1. BMI– This calculation measures your Body Mass Index taking into account your height, weight, ad age, but doesn’t specifically break down types of fat.
  2. Hip-to-Waist Ratio– This is a better indication of health than measuring the BMI, but it still doesn’t specifically identify SubQ vs. visceral fat. To perform this, measure the smallest portion of your waist (usually around the belly button) and divide this by the measurement of the largest portion of your hips. A healthy ratio is less than 0.85 for women and 0.9 for men.
  3. FitTrackPro Scale– this is what I use to track my fitness progress. This scale breaks down your percentage of visceral and subcutaneous fat along with muscle mass, bone density, hydration status & more! So easy, just download the app on your phone and track your progress!

Typically you’ll see calipers being used to measure body fat percentage, but this is only measuring the pinchable subcutaneous fat, which isn’t the one we’re really concerned about. Visceral fat is the one that matters the most in terms of health. Not the number on the scale or how much fat you can pinch, but how much visceral fat you carry in your abdomen is a major indicator and predictor of your health.

How to Get Rid of Body Fat

Unfortunately, we can’t spot target the exact type of body fat that we want to reduce. Therefore the best method is just traditional weight loss methods of diet and lifestyle changes. This includes eating more whole foods and less processed foods high in calories and saturated fats. Being sedentary leads to more fat accumulation so do your best to get in at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day. Having low muscle mass can also lead to more fat build up so add in some weight training for the best results. Lastly, having an unmanaged chronic disease can turn your body into a fat-producing machine. If you are suffering from a chronic disease like diabetes, work closely with your healthcare provider to get this under control.

For more of my best weight loss tips check out Why Do I Keep Gaining Weight, My Best Weight Loss Tips, and Avoid These Mistakes in Your Weight Loss Plan

Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.