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Types of Body Fat: Benefits, Dangers, and More


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Despite the broad use of the word “fat” to describe all body fat, there are actually several different types of fat in your body.

Some types of fat can have a negative effect on your health and contribute to disease. Others are beneficial and necessary for your health.

The main types of fat cells are white, brown, and beige cells. They can be stored as essential, subcutaneous, or visceral fat.

Each type of fat serves a different role. Some promote healthy metabolism and hormone levels, while others contribute to life-threatening diseases, including:

Read on to learn more about the different types of body fat.

White fat is the type of fat that most people immediately think of.

It’s made up of large, white cells that are stored under the skin or around the organs in the belly, arms, buttocks, and thighs. These fat cells are the body’s way of storing energy for later use.

This type of fat also plays a large role in the function of hormones such as:

  • estrogen
  • leptin (one of the hormones that stimulates hunger)
  • insulin
  • cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • growth hormone

While some white fat is necessary for good health, too much white fat is very harmful. Healthy body fat percentages range depending on your level of fitness or physical activity.

According to the American Council on Exercise, men who are non-athletes should have a total body fat percentage in the 14 to 24 percent range, while women who are non-athletes should be in the 21 to 31 percent range.

A body fat percentage higher than recommended can put you at risk for the following health issues:

Brown fat is a type of fat primarily found in babies, although adults do still retain a very small amount of brown fat, typically in the neck and shoulders.

This type of fat burns fatty acids to keep you warm. Researchers are interested in finding ways to stimulate the activity of brown fat to help prevent obesity.

Beige (or brite) fat is a relatively new area of research. These fat cells function somewhere between brown and white fat cells. Similarly to brown fat, beige cells can help burn fat rather than store it.

It’s believed that certain hormones and enzymes released when you’re stressed, cold, or when you exercise can help convert white fat into beige fat.

This is an exciting area of research to possibly help prevent obesity and maximize healthy body fat levels.

Essential fat is exactly that — essential for your life and a healthy body. This fat is found in your:

  • brain
  • bone marrow
  • nerves
  • membranes that protect your organs

Essential fat plays a major role in hormone regulation, including the hormones that control fertility, vitamin absorption, and temperature regulation.

According to the American Council on Exercise, women need at least 10 to 13 percent of their body composition to come from essential fat to be in good health, while men require at least 2 to 5 percent.

Subcutaneous fat refers to the fat stored under the skin. It’s a combination of brown, beige, and white fat cells.

The majority of our body fat is subcutaneous. It’s the fat that you can squeeze or pinch on your arms, belly, thighs, and buttocks.

Fitness professionals use calipers to measure subcutaneous fat as a way of estimating total body fat percentage.

A certain amount of subcutaneous fat is normal and healthy, but too much can lead to imbalanced hormone levels and sensitivity.

Visceral fat, also known as “belly fat,” is the white fat that’s stored in your abdomen and around all of your major organs, such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, and heart.

High visceral fat levels can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, artery disease, and some cancers.

Body composition is very important. Your body will function best with an appropriate overall fat percentage. Having a healthy body fat percentage provides many benefits, such as:

  • temperature regulation
  • balanced hormone levels
  • better reproductive health
  • adequate vitamin storage
  • good neurological function
  • healthy metabolism
  • balanced blood sugar

Having too much white fat, particularly visceral fat, can be harmful to your health. Visceral fat can increase your risk for the following health conditions:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • coronary artery disease
  • atherosclerosis
  • pregnancy complications
  • type 2 diabetes
  • hormone disturbances
  • some cancers

Body composition can be measured using several methods.

One common method of estimating body fat percentage is skinfold measurements. A trained technician can use calipers, a tong-like instrument, to pinch and measure folds of skin on your arms, waist, and thighs to estimate total body fat percentage.

This method measures primarily subcutaneous fat.

Another method is using a device called the Bod Pod. During a body composition assessment, the devise uses body weight and volume ratios to determine total fat percentage. This method theoretically measures all types of fat present in your body.

Bioelectrical impedance analysis is another method of determining body fat percentage. It’s frequently used in athletic training facilities. This test involves standing on a device that uses electrical current to measure the amount of lean versus fatty mass in your body.

Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference tests may also be helpful. While they don’t provide a specific percentage of body fat, they do provide an estimate based on your height and weight.

BMI is calculated as a ratio of weight to height, while waist circumference is a measurement of the smallest part of the waist.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a BMI greater than 25 is considered overweight, while a BMI over 30 is considered obese.

A waist circumference greater than 35 inches in women and 40 inches in men is considered higher risk for disease, as increased waist circumference can indicate the presence of visceral fat.

A common assumption is that a high-fat diet is what causes a person to have too much body fat. This is only partially true. While fat is higher in calories than carbohydrates or protein, people need a certain amount of dietary fat for good health.

Refined, processed foods that are high in carbohydrates and low in fiber can also cause weight gain. People with diets that are high in refined sugars and processed foods are often more prone to visceral fat, which is more dangerous as a predictor of disease than subcutaneous fat.

Calories consumed that aren’t needed by the body will be stored as fat reserves. In terms of gaining or losing weight, the total number of calories you take in versus the calories that you burn every day is what matters, rather than whether those calories are from fat, carbs, or protein.

Most experts recommend a diet high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and fiber with moderate portion sizes. A healthy diet is most effective when combined with a regular exercise program.

Strength training in particular is effective in increasing metabolism, building lean muscle mass, and preventing fat gain in the long term.

There are three different types of fat cells in the body: white, brown, and beige. Fat cells can be stored in three ways: essential, subcutaneous, or visceral fat.

Essential fat is necessary for a healthy, functional body. Subcutaneous fat makes up most of our bodily fat and is found under the skin. This is the body’s method of storing energy for later use.

Visceral fat is found in the abdomen amongst the major organs. It can be very dangerous in high levels. A high body fat percentage, and in particular the presence of visceral fat, can increase your risk for a number of diseases.

To promote weight loss or prevent weight gain, make sure to eat the same number of calories that you burn, or eat fewer calories than you burn. A high-protein diet combined with regular exercise is particularly effective in preventing stores of visceral fat.



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