Types of body fat
By words “body fat”, we usually mean excess weight, a layer of insulation or extra calorie storage. But fat plays a much more important role in the body. In fact, there are several different types of fat in our bodies. Some can have a negative impact on our health and contribute to various disease risks.
Not all fats are unhealthy – some fats are vital for our health.
Some fats can even help to reduce body weight.
The functions of fat
The body’s fat, or adipose tissue, contains fat cells, nerves, immune cells and connective tissue. Their main role is to store and release energy according to the body’s needs.
However, fat is not just an energy store.
Fat tissue is also our largest endocrine organ – the major producer of hormones.
The hormones produced by adipose tissue regulate metabolism and insulin sensitivity. They help the body utilize nutrients efficiently. For example, they are the main producer of adiponectin (a hormone that increases insulin sensitivity), the deficiency of which can lead to various metabolic diseases.
Adipose tissue also releases other substances that affect inflammatory processes and the functioning of the immune system.
Here are the 8 main functions of adipose tissue:
- Energy storage – when we take in more calories than our body needs, the excess energy is stored in fat cells as triglycerides.
- Insulation and temperature regulation – the subcutaneous fat layer reduces heat loss and helps maintain a constant body temperature.
- Protection and cushioning – fat protects and provides cushioning for vital organs, for example – fat surrounds and protects the kidneys and provides “cushioning” for the heart.
- Hormone production. – fat cells produce the hormones adipokines – substances that are involved in the regulation of various physiological processes and can affect metabolism, inflammation and insulin sensitivity. Leptin and adiponectin are examples of adipokines that help regulate appetite and the body’s response to insulin.
- Absorption and storage of fat-soluble vitamins – dietary fat is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) in the small intestine. These vitamins in the body are stored in the adipose tissue, liver and muscles.
- Cell structure – phospholipids (a type of fat) are an essential component of cell membranes. They help maintain cell structure and function.
- Brain health – the brain contains a significant amount of fat and fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential for brain health and cognitive function.
- Satiety – dietary fats help you feel full for longer, helping to control your appetite and prevent overeating.
In other words, our physical and mental health is greatly determined by how healthy our adipose tissue is.
Types of fat cells
Although all fat cells look similar from the outside, they can have different functions depending on their type. Here are the main types of fat cells:
White fat is the main type of fat cells in the body. It consists of large, white cells stored under the skin or around organs in the abdomen, arms, buttocks and thighs.
These fat cells store energy and play an important role in the action of hormones such as:
- Cortisol (stress hormone).
- Growth hormone.
Although we need white fat, too much white fat is a serious threat to our health. A healthy amount of body fat depends on our physical fitness.
According to the American Council on Exercise, men who do not exercise regularly should have between 14 and 24% total body fat as a percentage of their total body weight and women who do not exercise – between 21 and 31%.
Having more body fat than recommended increases the risk of complications during pregnancy and increases the likelihood of diseases such as:
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Hormone imbalance.
- Kidney diseases.
- Liver diseases.
Brown or thermogenic fat is unique in that under certain conditions, such as cold weather, it “burns” fat to generate heat (maintain body temperature).
Brown fat is mainly found in infants, although adults also retain small amounts of brown fat, usually in the neck, shoulders, abdomen and upper chest.
People with more brown fat tend to be slimmer and healthier than those with less brown fat. Studies show that brown fat improves metabolism and reduces the risk of diseases such as:
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Coronary artery disease.
- High blood pressure.
Beige fat cells have been discovered relatively recently (in 2008). The function of these fat cells is somewhere between brown and white fat cells. Like brown fat, beige fat cells can help burn calories to generate heat.
Beige fat is found in pea-sized deposits under the skin, near the collarbone and along the spine in adult humans.
In other words, beige fat cells could have therapeutic potential in treating obesity and diabetes.
Pink fat is a type of white fat that turns pink during pregnancy and lactation to produce and secrete breast milk.
The location of the fat is also important
The function of fat varies depending on whether it is under the skin, on the thighs or in the abdominal cavity (in close proximity to organs).
The most fat in the body is located just under the skin. It is a combination of brown, beige and white fat cells.
This type of fat works differently depending on where it is located:
- Subcutaneous fat in the abdomen produces more fatty acids, which can increase insulin resistance and the risk of metabolic diseases;
- Subcutaneous fat in the lower body effectively takes up and stores fat and is thought to protect us against disease.
A certain amount of subcutaneous fat is normal and healthy, but excessive amounts can cause imbalanced hormone levels and sensitivity.
Visceral fat, also known as “belly fat”, is the white fat that accumulates in the abdominal cavity around all the major organs, such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, heart…
They have a significant impact on liver function – the blood that leaves the visceral fat goes directly to the liver and delivers everything the fatty tissue produces, including fatty acids, hormones and inflammatory chemicals…
Visceral fat is also linked to conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma and dementia.
As we age, we tend to accumulate more and more visceral fat. This is especially true for women. The fat accumulation occurs from the lower part of the body towards the abdomen.
It is the amount of fat our bodies need to function normally, and it can be brown, white or beige fat.
It is found in most organs, including:
- The brain.
- Bone marrow.
- Membranes, which protect our organs.
It helps regulate hormones such as oestrogen, insulin, cortisol and leptin, controls body temperature and helps absorb vitamins and minerals. If the body fat content falls below a certain level (around 5% in men and 10% in women), essential fats may not be enough to carry out these functions.
According to the American Council on Exercise, to be healthy, women should have at least 10-13% essential fat in their body composition and men at least 5%.
How much fat is too much?
Fat is an essential part of our body.
If there is too little or too much fat- our health suffers.
Unfortunately, there is no formula to calculate the “right” amount of fat because it varies from person to person and depends a lot on our genes, for example – the amount of tissue available for fat storage. If it’s low, your body doesn’t have enough space to store the extra calories (if you regularly eat more than your body can use), and they will end up in your liver, muscles, heart… This is how metabolic diseases occur.
Instead of thinking about body weight or fat percentage, pay attention to your waist-to-hip ratio, as research shows that when it comes to overall health, it’s not the amount of fat that matters but how fat is distributed around the body.
To calculate your waist-to-hip ratio, measure your waist and hip circumference in centimetres with a tape measure and divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference. Men with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.90 or more and women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.85 cm or more are considered to be at higher risk of health problems.
Studies also show that fat affects women and men differently, for example – one study found that higher muscle mass reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in both women and men, while women with more fat, regardless of muscle mass, were less likely to die from heart diseases (if they had healthy cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels).
Diet and the amount of fat in our body
It is believed that too much body fat is caused by a high-fat diet.
This is only partly true. Although 1 g of fat has more calories than 1 g of carbs or protein – it is not the calories from fat that cause excess weight, but the excess calories. Calories we take in but which our bodies don’t use and store as energy reserves in the form of fat.
And it doesn’t matter whether these extra (unused) calories come from fat, carbs or protein.
Weight gain is most commonly caused by a diet high in refined, ultra-processed foods. These are foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients.
In addition, people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods are also more prone to accumulating visceral fat, which is more dangerous to health than subcutaneous fat.
To maintain a healthy fat content, most experts recommend a diet high in protein, compound carbohydrates and fiber and moderate portion sizes. A healthy diet in combination with regular exercise is the key to our health and well-being.
In particular, strength training is highly effective for improving metabolism (building muscle mass) and preventing overweight in the long term.
Although body fat and the fat in our diet are often considered the ” root of all evil” – fat is vital for our bodies, even when we are slimming!
Body fat is not just about our body shape or appearance – it has a huge impact on our health. To be healthy – we need healthy fat tissue, and we need to have the right amount of fat in our bodies – not too much, not too little.
The main types of fat cells are white, brown and beige, and each of these types of fat has a different impact on our health – some contribute to healthy metabolism and regulate hormone levels, while others contribute to life-threatening diseases.
More important than how much fat is in our body is where the fat is stored – visceral fat (fat around organs) is the most dangerous.
To promote weight loss or prevent weight gain, try to eat exactly as many (or slightly fewer) calories as your body uses during the day. A high-protein diet combined with regular exercise is particularly effective in preventing the accumulation of fat (excess weight).
Eat a balanced diet and – stay healthy!
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