It’s no secret that having too much body fat could be bad for your health. You probably focus on how much you have, but another aspect worth paying attention to is fat distribution — or where you have it.
Turns out, there are certain places where having excess fat could be problematic. And there are other places where it might not be that big of a deal.
How can you tell the difference? Here’s what you should know about fat distribution and what it can tell you about your health. Plus, here’s how you can achieve a better balance.
1. Where your fat is located isn’t totally in your control — especially as you get older
You have plenty of say over your total amount of body fat. As for where that fat tends to show up? That can be a little harder to manage.
Most people tend to accumulate fat either in their midsection or in their hips and thighs. But your genes, sex, age, and hormones could affect how much fat you have and where it goes.
What determines fat allocation?
- Your genes. Nearly 50 percent of fat distribution may be determined by genetics, estimates a 2017 study. If most of the people in your family have rounder bellies or fuller hips, there’s a good chance you’ll follow suit.
- Your sex. Healthy body fat levels for males range from 6 to 24 percent, but for females, it’s between 14 and 31 percent, notes the American Council on Exercise. “And men tend to accumulate more fat around the midsection, while women gain it more in the hips and buttocks,” says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, associate clinical professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
- Your age. Older adults tend to have higher levels of body fat overall, thanks to factors like a slowing metabolism and gradual loss of muscle tissue. And the extra fat is more likely to be visceral instead of subcutaneous.
- Your hormone levels. Weight and hormones are commonly linked, even more so in your 40s. This is due to the natural decline of hormones like testosterone (in men) and estrogen (in women), explains Pamela Peeke, MD, a body fat expert and author of “Body for Life for Women.”
2. But there’s more than one type of body fat to pay attention to
Believe it or not, there are three. Not only does each one have a different function. They’re all located in different parts of your body.
|subcutaneous||all over, but mostly around butt, hips, and thighs|
|visceral||around abs, but can’t be felt|
|brown||shoulder and chest|
- Subcutaneous fat sits on top of your muscle, right underneath your skin. It’s the kind you can poke or pinch, often around your butt, hips, or thighs. This makes up about 90 percent of our fat stores.
- Visceral fat sits deep inside the abdominal cavity. It surrounds vital organs like the liver, intestines, and heart. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you can’t touch or feel it. But it can pose serious health risks. (More on this later.)
- Brown fat is a special type of fat that actually helps the body burn extra calories to stay warm. Babies have a lot of brown fat, but adults have small amounts too, mostly around the shoulder and chest areas. A small study involving five men found spending time in chilly temperatures — around 66°F (19°C) or cooler — can activate it and boost calorie burning.
3.Subcutaneous,the ‘pinchable’ kind, actually has some important benefits
Subcutaneous fat is basically stored energy. Small amounts of it can be more helpful than you think.
It pumps out hormones like leptin, which signal to the brain that you’re full and don’t need to keep eating. It also makes adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory hormone that plays a role in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
In other words? Resist that urge to judge your jiggle. It can be a good thing.
4. Too much visceral fat can be dangerous
Because it’s stored around your vital organs, visceral fat can make its way into your liver. From there, it’s turned into cholesterol, which travels into the bloodstream and clogs up arteries.
Visceral fat is also thought to signal the release of inflammatory chemicals and contribute to insulin resistance.
Both of these processes can wreak havoc on the body.
Excess visceral fat can increase risk of:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer
While it’s hard to recognize how much visceral fat you have, having too much is surprisingly common. Findings show that 44 percent of women and 42 percent of men have excess visceral fat. The most precise way to measure the amount in your body is with an MRI or CT scan.
5. BMI isn’t always the best predictor of healthy body fat levels
You’re more likely to have too much visceral fat if your body mass index (BMI) falls in the overweight (25 to 29.9) or obese (30 or above) category.
But you shouldn’t rely on BMI alone to tell you whether your body fat falls in the healthy range, says Ayoob.
Research shows that 22 percent of men and 8 percent of women who are considered normal weight actually have too much visceral fat. (And are at risk for the health problems that can come with it.)
The opposite can also be true. Around 22 percent of men and 10 percent of women with obesity have levels of visceral fat that fall within the normal range.
The takeaway? It’s just as important to pay attention to the amount of fat around your midsection as the number on the scale.