This may come as a surprise to some of you, but when it comes to different types of body fat, there is more than what meets the eye.
In spite of the broad use of the word “fat” to describe all body fat, there are actually different types of body fat within your body.
Some types of body fat are beneficial and necessary for your health while others can have a negative impact on your health by contributing to disease.
From assisting clients’ achieve their weight loss goals over the last several years, we here at Plato Weight Management are aware of the importance of understanding these body fat subgroups for your health.
In this Plato Weight Management article, we will be talking about:
- Essential body fat
- Subcutaneous body fat
- Visceral body fat
- Why some of us have different proportions of body fat types than others
- How to identify your levels of dangerous body fat
- How to reduce dangerous body fat
To begin, the make-up of your body can be broken down into two parts: Fat mass and Fat-free mass
Fat-free mass represents the aspects of your body such as your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and internal organs.
This article will focus on the alternative component of your body, fat mass.
There are two main types of fat in the body: Essential fat and Nonessential fat, or sometimes referred to as storage fat.
To read our blog about the different types of body fat and which you should be targeting, please follow the link here.
Essential fat is found in bone marrow, the brain, the spinal cord and cell membranes. The reason why it is called “essential fat” is that it is needed for normal physiological and biological functioning.
Without it, the body would not function properly, and entire systems like our immune systems and our neurological system would be affected.
The average percentages of essential fat relating to body composition are 3% in males and 12% in females. The reason why women have a higher level of essential fat than men is due to child-bearing.
Now when it comes to nonessential or storage fat, this can be further broken down into two body fat types: Subcutaneous and Visceral.
Subcutaneous fat is the visible type of fat that can be found in almost every part of the body such as the hips, thighs, legs, arms and stomach.
So much so, that it actually totals around 90% of your overall body fat percentage!
It’s located on the outer layer of your body just underneath the skin.
What subcutaneous fat is necessary for is that it insulates and protects the body.
But what might come as a surprise to you is that the visible subcutaneous fat is actually not related to many of the dangerous and classic obesity-related pathologies such as heart disease, cancer and stroke that we hear of so much today.
Some evidence suggests that it actually could be protective (Porter et al, 2009).
The culprit for this is our other type of storage fat: Visceral fat.
Visceral fat, also known as organ fat or intraabdominal fat, is located just behind your abdominal wall.
It’s the fat that you cannot see.
It’s packed between your internal organs and torso instead of subcutaneous fat which is, as mentioned, underneath the skin.
Some visceral fat is indeed necessary as it protects the organs from, for example, jarring motions.
But guys, excessive amounts of visceral fat can actually be very harmful!
Visceral fat doesn’t just store calories. It’s living tissue capable of producing and releasing hormones that affect your organs and as visceral fat sits so close to the organs, this is what makes the release of these chemicals so dangerous!
Visceral fat can also mean a higher risk for diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular problems such as stroke, coronary artery disease and heart disease.
A common misconception is that you need to be obese to have visceral fat, but even people who seem fit could also have harmful visceral fat.
Why some of us have different proportions of body fat types than others
Well, besides from poor dietary choices and lack of exercise, scientists reckon that certain genes may make you more prone to building visceral fat.
Moreover, post-menopausal women are also more susceptible due to hormonal changes and older people, in general, are more likely to get visceral fat too.
Furthermore, yo-yo dieters are more likely to have visceral fat also.
What I mean by yo-yo dieting is cycles losing weight, gaining weight and then losing weight again, resembling the up and down motion of a yo-yo.
To read our article breaking down everything you need to know about vitamins and minerals, please follow the link here.
This would be done by someone who is successful in losing weight short-term but is unsuccessful long-term and begins to put the weight loss back on.
Proper dieting should be done over a longer time period to get used to changes in your attitude towards weight loss and to develop the habits to incorporate in your life to assist you with losing the weight for good.
Therefore, we want a long-term goal to lose fat alongside short-term goals of moderate-fat loss just to ensure your consistency towards your overall goal.
Now that we have explained visceral fat,
How do we check for levels of it if it is not visible?
How to identify your levels of dangerous body fat
Well, it’s worth mentioning, that one not so effective method to do this would be with the use of body mass index (BMI).
We have all heard of BMI’s main issue being that it overestimates body fat in people with a lot of muscle mass and tends to underestimate it in older adults (who often lose muscle mass).
But a second issue is that it also doesn’t take into account the specific locations of body fat, meaning it can’t differentiate between visceral fat in the abdominal region or subcutaneous fat in the thigh and upper arm region.
This is where our next two measurements come into play: Waist circumference and Waist-to-hip ratio.
Waist Circumference is an easy method that can evaluate visceral fat.
It can be checked by:
- Finding the bottom of your ribs and top of your hips
- Wrapping a tape measure around your waist, midway between these points
- Making sure to breathe out naturally before measuring while also not pulling the tape too tight to compress the area to be as accurate as possible.
A benefit of Waist circumference is that it can provide a more accurate assessment for cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes than BMI.
In women, a waist circumference of 35 inches (or 88 cm) or larger would be considered a sign of excess visceral fat while in men it would be 40 inches (102 cm).
You can absolutely try this yourself to see if there may be a concern or not.
On the other hand, Waist-to-hip ratio is done by measuring your waist circumference alongside your hip circumference (around the widest hip regions) and then dividing the waist measurement result by the hip measurement result. There may be a concern for excessive visceral fat in women if you obtain a score of 0.8 or higher while in men 1.0 or higher.
To read our blog about The Alkaline Diet, please follow the link here.
Now that we have explained how to check for excess visceral fat, how might we reduce it if there is a concern?
How to reduce dangerous body fat?
Well, when it comes to reducing visceral fat, we first want to make sure that we are in a caloric deficit each day.
And what is a caloric deficit?
Well basically, a calorie deficit occurs when the number of calories a person consumes in a day is smaller than the number of calories they burn.
For a more in-depth breakdown, I recommend checking out this video on “Understanding Nutrition Labels For Weight Loss” which gives an excellent explanation of how to calculate an adequate caloric deficit for you in addition to how to calculate the amounts of nutrients such as protein, carbs and fat you should be consuming each day when dieting.
Next, you want to eat a well-balanced diet high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and protein as this will help keep you energized while allowing you to feel fuller longer to avoid cravings as a result of the dieting.
Thirdly, we want to engage in some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week as per recommendations from the American College Of Sports Medicine guidelines (Riebe et al., 2018).
Keep in mind these 30 minutes can be spread over a day in 10-minute intervals instead if more suitable for your daily routine!
To read our article on whether fat-shaming is effective for weight loss, please follow the link here.
Visceral fat actually responds very well to regular endurance exercises such as running, biking, rowing, swimming or any sport that elevates your heart rate.
As your body uses fat to fuel exercise, it will start using up the excess visceral fat.
We also want to try to sleep more and stress less! But again, reducing bad food and enhancing activity levels will assist with both of these!
And finally, we want to cut back on alcohol and added sugar plus high fat and processed foods as they are also a major cause of visceral fat too guys.
What is also worth noting is that liposuction has been found to have no effect on reducing visceral fat from a study by Klein et al. (2004).
A common misconception of people looking to undergo liposuction is that the procedure will make them healthier.
However, it won’t make them healthier, it will just make them look skinnier.
Klein et al. (2004) showed that patients who instantly lost 12% of their body weight from liposuction still had high blood pressure, insulin and cholesterol levels.
This is because only subcutaneous fat stores are removed from the surgery as it is too dangerous to remove the visceral fat due to being so closely located to the internal organs.
The finding demonstrates that there is no substitute for weight loss besides diet and exercise guys.
To read our blog about how to read a nutrition label to lose weight, please follow the link here.
In conclusion, it is the visceral fat stores that are the most concerning kind of body fat for health.
Actively working towards losing visceral fat through dieting and living a more active lifestyle will help you avoid unnecessary risks of several disorders that can arise due to its excess.
You may indeed check your own personal visceral fat stores but for a more accurate assessment, it is recommended to consult your physician.
If you are interested in undertaking one of our evidence-based and results-backed Plato Weight Management programs, please make sure to check what program may be suitable for you at this link or contact us here!
You can find out what some of our previous clients had to say about the program on our success stories page!
Klein, S., Fontana, L., Young, V. L., Coggan, A. R., Kilo, C., Patterson, B. W., & Mohammed, B. S. (2004). Absence of an effect of liposuction on insulin action and risk factors for coronary heart disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 350(25), 2549-2557. doi:10.1056/nejmoa033179
Porter, S. A., Massaro, J. M., Hoffmann, U., Vasan, R. S., O’Donnel, C. J., & Fox, C. S. (2009). Abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue: a protective fat depot?. Diabetes care, 32(6), 1068–1075. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc08-2280
Riebe, D., Ehrman, J., Liguori, G., & Magal, M. (2018). ACSM’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription. (10th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.