Body Fat — It’s Not All The Same

What You Need to Know About the Types of Body Fat

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This time of the year many people experience dieting fatigue. The new year’s resolve has worn off and the fear of the swimsuit at the beach hasn’t kicked in… yet. Our motivation must come from something more than what we’ve always used and, for many of us, we’ve always used that number on the scale.

What if the way you’re losing weight and where you’re losing it from is going to decide your long-term quality of life? If you knew that losing those last twenty pounds would mean having a sharp mind in your 80s, would it increase your motivation to do so?

We’re often told to measure and if your house is like mine it can be a real trick to find that measuring tape. But I want to encourage you to try it out, so you’ll need at least your waist measurement for later in this article.

Let’s do a quick overview of the types of fat that you need to know.

Brown Fat — Children have more than adults and this type of fat burns calories.

White Fat — This type of fat produces hormones and stores energy.

Subcutaneous — located directly under the skin.

Visceral — deep fat, located around the inner organs.

Belly — this is a mix of visceral and subcutaneous. Did you measure yet?

Thighs/Buttocks — white fat located exactly where it says!

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This fat was once ignored and considered mostly to be on children to help keep them warm. Adults have very little brown fat. A new buzz of excitement exists now that researchers know this fat functions more like a muscle than white fat does. It burns calories. Plus, brown fat is higher in lean people than overweight or obese individuals which could lead to a possible weight-loss help later.

Although leaner adults have more brown fat than heavier people, even their brown fat cells are greatly outnumbered by white fat cells. “A 150-pound person might have 20 or 30 pounds of fat,” Cypess says. “They are only going to have 2 or 3 ounces of brown fat.”

But that 2 ounces, he says, if maximally stimulated, could burn off 300 to 500 calories a day — enough to lose up to a pound in a week. [2]


This is the fat we mean when we’re complaining about wanting to shed it. As I’ve mentioned, fat does have functions and white fat is no different. It stores energy in a way that we can get to it later in time of need (although in modern society those times are few and far between!). It also produces hormones.

Scientists are reporting new evidence that the fat tissue in those spare tires and lower belly pooches — far from being a dormant storage depot for surplus calories — is an active organ that sends chemical signals to other parts of the body, perhaps increasing the risk of heart attacks, cancer, and other diseases. They are reporting discovery of 20 new hormones and other substances not previously known to be secreted into the blood by human fat cells and verification that fat secretes dozens of hormones and other chemical messengers. Their study appears in ACS’ monthly Journal of Proteome Research. [6]

The small white fat cell is responsible for producing the hormone adiponectin. Increased sensitivity to this hormone in the muscles and liver help protected against diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, if you are overweight, the production of adiponectin is either severely hampered or not happening at all.

White fat is further broken down by where it is located: subcutaneous, visceral, belly, thighs and butt.


This is located directly under the skin and you’ll find it all over your body. It’s not considered as dangerous as visceral fat, but it is still wreaking havoc with your hormones. If you’ve had a skin calliper test performed it is measuring this type of fat.


This is the bad guy even though we often focus on the subcutaneous fat instead. Visceral fat is deep and it is squeezing in around your organs. It is increasing insulin resistance which directly increases your risk for stroke, diabetes, and dementia.


Have you taken your measurements? Here we go. If you’re a woman with a waistline larger than 35” or a man with a waistline larger than 40” you are at risk.

Belly fat is a mix of visceral and subcutaneous fat and only a CT scan can show how much of each is on your body. If your measurements are greater than those above it is safe to assume you have too much visceral fat wrapping around your organs and creating major health risks.

Belly fat also plays a role in leptin production. Leptin is a hormone that influences appetite regulation, learning and memory. Overweight and obese people have high levels of leptin, which increases the risk of leptin resistance. If your brain is constantly being bombarded by this hormone it learns to ignore it. This resistance throws off your brain’s ability to naturally regulate your weight. It is also thought to play a role in dementia due to the high levels of leptin circulating in the body. [1]

There is accumulating evidence from epidemiological studies that changes in body weight are associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) from mid-life obesity increasing the risk of developing AD to weight loss occurring at the earliest stages of AD. Therefore, factors that regulate body weight are likely to influence the development and progression of AD. The adipocyte-derived hormone leptin has emerged as a major regulator of body weight mainly by activating hypothalamic neural circuits. Leptin also has several pleotropic effects including regulating cognitive function and having neuroprotective effects, suggesting a potential link between leptin and AD. [1]


Around nine years ago a study came out saying that fat stored in the thighs and butt could help protect women from metabolic and heart disease. Researchers decided they wanted to see what happens if women lose this so-called protective fat. The results? Better heart health.

Loss of leg fat and leg lean tissue was directly associated with beneficial changes in cardiovascular disease risk markers. Loss of lean tissue may not have an adverse effect on cardiovascular disease risk, and measures to retain lean tissue during weight loss may not be necessary. [3]

What can you do?

Decrease calories. We all know this is the key to weight loss, but there are many ways you can go about it. For some, using a lower carbohydrate diet helps them with appetite control. Others utilize free calorie counters like MyFitnessPal and do not restrict food groups.

Does the type of diet matter? Yes and no. All lower calorie diets will help you drop fat from your body. Yet, some diets like plant-based (vegetarian) ones are also shown to decrease leptin circulation which helps lower body fat storage.

Both lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans had lower plasma leptin concentrations than their meat-consuming counterparts. Every analyzed diet group had a different body fat content, with the highest level in omnivores and the lowest in vegans. All participants had similar calorie, total fat, and total carbohydrates intake. Total PUFA and specifically omega-3 fatty acids consumption was lower in omnivores when compared to both types of plant diet; the same was found for fiber intake. Our results suggest that adopting a plant-based diet may be beneficial for energetic metabolism, as it significantly lowers the body fat storage and circulating leptin levels. [4]

Alarmingly, one study shows that for post-menopausal diabetic women that exercise is required to lose the dangerous visceral fat. Many studies have been done on men or on women without diabetes, but this one shows that for this group of individuals their bodies react differently.

Weight loss, whether with diet and/or exercise, results in reductions in abdominal fat, particularly in the visceral depot in healthy obese individuals, and these changes in abdominal fat have also been associated with improvements in insulin sensitivity. Exercise without weight loss is also effective in reducing visceral adipose tissue. However, these earlier studies did not include individuals with type 2 diabetes, in whom disordered fat storage and mobilization occurs, causing dramatic metabolic abnormalities. [5]

Intermittent fasting is a hot research area but more needs to be done in humans to see if it decreases visceral fat faster than traditional calorie restriction. A lot of the current research models are based on mice. We do know that IF preserves metabolism in a way that isn’t seen in CR, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we find many other benefits of this style of (not?) eating as it gains popularity.


1. McGuire, Matthew J and Makoto Ishii. “Leptin Dysfunction and Alzheimer’s Disease: Evidence from Cellular, Animal, and Human Studies” Cellular and molecular neurobiology vol. 36,2 (2016): 203–17.

2. Cypess, A., et all. “Identification and Importance of Brown Adipose Tissue in Adult Humans” N Engl J Med 2009; 360:1509–1517 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa0810780

3. Relationship Between Changes in Fat and Lean Depots Following Weight Loss and Changes in Cardiovascular Disease Risk Markers

4. Association Between Different Types Of Plant-based Diets and Leptin Levels in Healthy Volunteers. P Gogga-A Śliwińska-E Aleksandrowicz-Wrona-S Małgorzewicz —

5. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 90, Issue 3, 1 March 2005, Pages 1511–1518,

New Evidence That Fat Cells Are Not Just Dormant Storage Depots For Calories

Written by

Former Certified Professional Midwife (aka hippy homebirth midwife) turned freelance writer and bedroom programmer. NaNoWriMo winner. Houseplant enthusiast.

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