Fat is shunned by society; no one wants to hear or learn anything about it. However, the reason why it’s got such a lousy reputation probably has more to do with the beauty standards of the day than with the health implications.
However, you should know that not all fat is bad; in fact, essential fats help regulate body temperature, promote vitamin absorption and cellular structure and regulate hormones, such as fertility hormones.
So, fat is also good, and you need to be careful not to lose the essential fats that help your body function normally.
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Types of Body Fat
Let’s have a look at the 6 main types of body fat and how to keep them in check.
1. White fat
White fat, also known as white adipocytes, is the most “popular” type of fat. What we mean is that when you think about fat, you most probably envision this white fat made of large, white cells stockpiled under the skin or around the organs, belly, arms, thighs or buttocks.
It is called white fat because the cells that make it are literally white, thanks to a low density of mitochondria and blood vessels.
White fat is our body’s energy “storehouse”; it basically stores extra energy in the form of triglycerides. Apart from this, it also provides a buffer for our organs, shielding our external body structure. Its third function is to produce leptin and estrogen that help regulate hunger. It also plays a vital role in managing the growth hormone, the stress hormone (cortisol), and insulin, maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance.
In other words, white fat is essential for our good health. However, too much white fat can be detrimental. If our body is exposed consistently to high levels of white fat, it will become less sensitive to the hunger-regulating effects of leptin. The result: a vicious circle of hunger and white fat, raising the risk of weight gain by tenfold.
In greater levels, white fat can also lead to insulin resistance, putting you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, stroke, hormone imbalances, kidney or liver disease, and even cancer.
So, when does white fat become harmful to your health? You can tell that by measuring your body fat percentage. Women aged 20 to 39 should aim for 21% to 32% body fat, while men should have between 8% and 19%. Older men aged 40 to 59 should aim for 11% to 21% body fat, while women should be ok between 23% and 33%.
White fat is usually visible on the hips, thighs, and abdomen. To get rid of that, you need workouts that build muscle tissue. More than that, you should pay more attention to your body’s hunger cues and stop eating when you feel satisfied rather than full.
2. Brown fat
Brown fat or brown adipose tissue is a unique type of fat that is triggered when we feel cold. It generates heat by burning fatty acids to help keep our core body temperature in freezing environments.
So, compared to white fat, brown fat is not a storage kind of fat. Therefore, you don’t really have to manage it. It will burn easily, especially if you live in cooler climates.
In fact, we have more brown fat as babies than as adults because, as newborns, we can’t shiver. Shivering is one of our body’s mechanisms of dealing with cold by quickly expanding and contracting our muscles to generate warmth. However, babies don’t shiver, so they have brown fat behind their shoulder blades to act as a built-in heater. But as we get older, we lose much of the brown fat as we develop the shivering mechanism.
Brown fat is indeed brown because it has a lot more mitochondria. Scientists are trying to determine whether we can convert white fat into brown adipose tissue. More brown fat would boost our body’s ability to burn calories and prevent obesity.
According to a Harvard study, living in an environment cooled to 60.8 degrees for 10 days in a row increases brown fat activity (but not the actual levels of brown fat). So, maybe it’s a good idea to keep your home somewhat cool in the winter, especially while you sleep. Nevertheless, researchers have a lot more work to do until they figure out how to use the brown fat properties to fight obesity.
3. Beige fat
Not much is known about beige fat. Some scientists claim it is a midpoint between white and brown fat, while others believe it has its own unique cell type and function.
However, what we do know is that beige fat cells help burn fat rather than store it. Preliminary research shows that we can convert white fat into beige fat by putting our body under stress, and the primary stressor is exercise. Basically, by working out, we can turn white fat into beige fat, burning and releasing it as heat.
A 2017 study has identified an enzyme that can manage the beige-ing of white fat. During a workout, our muscles release some specific proteins that can help turn white fat beige.
Animal studies have shown that the hormones called catecholamines or irisin, which are released when we’re feeling either stressed or cold, might help fire up the conversion of white fat into beige fat.
So, it is time to get moving. Aim for at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week and try high-intensity interval training routines to increase the catecholamines and irisin levels that could trigger the beige-ing of white fat.
4. Subcutaneous fat
As the name suggests, subcutaneous fat is the fat stored just beneath our skin. You see, our skin is composed of 3 individual layers – the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutaneous fat. Simply put, subcutaneous fat is the deep-seated stratum of our skin.
According to Harvard Health, almost 90% of our body fat is subcutaneous fat. It’s the fluffy stuff that makes our belly puffy; it’s that squishy body fat you can grab with your hands as you swear you’ll never eat ice cream after 10 pm ever again.
Subcutaneous fat is not all bad. It is a combination of white, beige, and brown fat, and in certain amounts, it is healthy and beneficial. For one, it acts as a cushion between your muscle and skin tissue, providing comfort and protection.
However, in high quantities, it can spell trouble by messing with your hormone levels.
You see, subcutaneous fat, commonly accumulating as stubborn thigh fat in females or abdomen fat in males, is responsible for regulating the sex hormone estrogen. Since estrogen plays a vital role in female fertility, women have more subcutaneous fat than men.
You can measure subcutaneous fat through a skin-fold test. Trained fitness and health professionals use calipers to pinch the subcutaneous fat and measure it. It’s not painful, but it’s not fun, either.
Our body stores subcutaneous fat as backup energy in case of starvation or caloric deprivation. It’s our emergency reserve that makes it possible for us to survive one or even two months without food. For example, in 2012, a Swedish man was trapped for two months in his snow-buried car and survived without food.
As you can see, our body has a very good reason for storing subcutaneous fat. That’s also why reducing it is tricky. You need to lower your calorie intake, improve your diet, avoid refined carbs or processed foods and never skip a workout. Regular high-intensity exercise might help burn off some of the excess subcutaneous fat, but you’ll have to work really hard for that.
5. Visceral fat
Visceral fat is what we usually call “belly fat”. It is essentially white fat stored in the abdominal cavity and around several organs such as the intestines, liver, pancreas, and heart. Visceral fat is about 10% of all the fat in our body.
Research suggests that visceral fat releases retinol-binding protein 4, which increases insulin resistance, leading to glucose intolerance and even Type-2 diabetes. Too much visceral fat has also been associated with breast cancer, colorectal cancer, stroke, artery disease, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Visceral fat should be your No.1 enemy in your fight against weight gain. It’s probably the most dangerous type of fat in the body, and you need to keep it under control.
A straightforward way to gauge your visceral fat level at home is to identify your waist-to-hip ratio. So, measure your waist and hip circumference and divide your waist dimension by your hip measurement. If the ratio is more than 1.0 for men and 0.85 for women, then you’ve got excessive visceral fat, and you need to do something about that.
A high caloric intake is one of the reasons for excessive visceral fat. However, compared to subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is triggered more by processed foods.
So, the first step toward reducing your visceral fat levels is to change your diet. Aim for a nutrition plan rich in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, fiber, and whole grains. Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night and 75 minutes of exercise per week. Come on; you can do it!
6. Essential fat
Just like the name suggests, essential fat is the good guy, playing a crucial role in hormone and temperature regulation and vitamin absorption.
According to the American Council on Exercise, 10% to 13% of the body composition needs to be essential fat for women and 2% to 5% for men. This is mainly because essential fat helps regulate the production of fertility hormones. Unfortunately, high-performance women athletes might cut their body fat percentages to as low as 6%, leading to hormonal dips.
You can’t really grasp essential fat as you do with your belly fat. Essential fat is found throughout the body, from your nerve membranes to bone marrow or the membranes protecting your body organs. Essential fat is the fat you need to live. You can’t lose essential fat without putting your health at risk.
Studies suggest that low essential fat levels can also impair the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.
So, if you’re striving hard to lose weight, remember to keep your health your top priority. Don’t go over the line because you also need fat to stay healthy.