When it comes to body fat, most people only think about the type that makes it hard to pull on our pants, or that causes the buttons on a shirt to be put under a strain. However, there is more than one type of fat in each and every one of us. And, some of these fats are actually beneficial to our health – while other types of fat can have a negative effect on your health and contribute to disease.
The main types of body fat cells are white, brown and beige. These fat cells are stored in our bodies as essential, subcutaneous, or visceral fat. Each of these fats serve a different role. Some promote healthy metabolism and hormone levels, while others contribute to life-threatening diseases, including:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
If you have trouble with your weight, the type of body fat which probably comes to mind first for you is the unsightly muffin top fat, or more appropriately, white fat. This fat is 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. Unfortunately, some people store far more than they will ever require – this includes me too if I do not closely watch my nutrition and caloric intake.
White fat cells play a large and significant role in the function of our hormones such as:
- leptin (one of the hormones that stimulates hunger)
- cortisol (a stress hormone)
- growth hormone
This type of fat is like a double edged sword whereas while some white fat is necessary for good health, too much of it is actually quite harmful. At David’s Way we always stress that people aim to achieve a healthy body fat percentage over just reaching a number on the scale.
Healthy body fat percentages range depending on your level of fitness or physical activity. The American Council on Exercise recommends that 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. Our message at David’s Way has always been that losing weight for your health should be your prime motivation over doing so for vanity reasons. Carrying too much fat leaves us vulnerable to the following health issues:
- type 2 diabetes
- coronary artery disease
- high blood pressure
- hormone imbalances
- pregnancy complications
- kidney disease
- liver disease
A key take away that I want you to never forget is while there are many social media influencers and others who will tell you that you can be obese and healthy, they are wrong. These people either know better and are lying to you in justification of their own obesity, or they simply just do not know what it is they are talking about. Specifically, there are some social media influencers on Instagram promoting this “fat is healthy” message while also proclaiming they are nutritionists. Never, ever buy into that garbage, being obese is not being healthy.
Brown fat, also called brown adipose tissue, helps keep up your body temperature when you get too cold. It’s the same fat that bears use to stay warm when they hibernate.
When babies are born, they have a quite a bit of brown fat. Since babies can’t shiver, this fat acts as a built in heater to keep them warm. We lose most of it as we get older and form a shiver response to cold temperatures. This type of fat keeps us warm because it actually burns fatty acids.
There are distinct differences in the make up of white and brown fat cells. White fat is made of big droplets of lipids, or fatty acids. Cells in brown fat are packed with mitochondria. Mitochondria are rich in iron, which gives brown fat it’s color. These mitochondria are the heart of your cells. They take in nutrients like sugar and white fat and break them down to make energy. Brown fat stores more energy in a smaller space than white fat does.
As adults we have lost most of the brown fat cells in our bodies. That which remains can be found in our necks, collarbone, kidneys, and spinal cord. Lean people typically have more brown fat than overweight people. Women also tend to have more than men.
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.
Essential fat is exactly that — essential for your life and a healthy body. This fat is found in your:
- bone marrow
- 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. While a certain amount of subcutaneous fat is normal and healthy, too much leads to an imbalance in your hormone levels and sensitivity.
Visceral fat, which is also known as “belly fat,” is the white fat that we store in the belly and around all of our major organs, such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, and heart.
High visceral fat levels increases our risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, artery disease, and some cancers. Too much visceral fat can bring about health complications fairly quick, and can raise your risk of insulin resistance even if you have never been diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes. It can also raise your blood pressure rapidly.
Visceral fat is dangerous since it is not visible and we often do not realize that it is even there. However, it is quite preventable, and it also responds well to exercise, diet, and other lifestyle changes that help support a moderate weight. With each pound that you lose, you will lose a portion of this dangerous fat.
When to see your doctor
If you’re a man and your waist is more than 40 inches, or if you’re a woman and your waist is more than 35 inches, make an appointment to see your doctor as soon as possible to discuss potential health risks and lifestyle changes.
Be sure to always see your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise regimen.