Aiming to lose body fat is a common priority for improving your overall health and why you set a goal to consistently track your food intake and make more time for movement. However, as we learn more about the human body, it’s becoming clear the relationship between body fat and health is a little more complicated — and we’re learning where your body fat is matters.
For instance, it’s possible to have a BMI, or body mass index, in the “overweight” or even “obese” range and still be healthy. This is partially because BMI doesn’t account for body composition, or your relative levels of body fat, muscle tissue, bone and water. People with higher proportions of muscle tissue (Think: Olympic weightlifters), are likely to be heavier. But BMI and body fat measures also don’t account for something else that’s proving important: location and type of body fat.
Put simply, not all body fat is created equal, and not everyone with more body fat has a higher risk of health conditions that are usually associated with being overweight or obese. Here, experts explain why body fat type and location may matter more than the overall number on the scale.
“We used to think of body fat as inactive tissue, meaning it didn’t really have an active function in the body,” says Ryan Andrews, RD, principal nutritionist and advisor at Precision Nutrition. “Now, it’s known as a hormone factory that can influence other health conditions and parts of the body.”
There are three different types of body fat:
- Visceral body fat is a type of white fat that’s deeper within the trunk of the body, surrounding your organs, which is why it’s deemed the most dangerous kind. “It tends to have a higher turnover rate (meaning it can be broken down and stored more readily), which can make it more problematic for overall health.” While men tend to have more of it, notes Andrews, it’s possible to be “skinny” and still have visceral fat around the abdomen.
- Subcutaneous body fat is another type of white fat that’s closer to the skin’s surface. Andrews notes that women tend to have more of this type, and it’s the kind of body fat measured during a skinfold test.
- Brown fat is metabolically active fat tissue that helps produce heat. “Humans usually don’t have much of it, and it’s often only found in certain parts of the body, like the lower neck, collarbone, abdomen and along the spine,” says Andrews. “Brown fat is more often found in people who are younger, leaner and male. It can also be found more often on people who live in colder climates.” What’s really interesting is brown fat doesn’t have the association to poor health outcomes that white fat does and it can help burn calories.
WHERE YOUR BODY FAT IS LOCATED AND WHAT IT MEANS
“How we live can influence how much body fat we have, along with where we store it,” explains Andrews.” But the body fat we have and where we have it can also influence how we live; it’s a reciprocal relationship.” Where your body fat is located depends on a range of factors including genetics, diet, stress levels, how much movement and sleep you get, as well as things like the health of your mother when in utero and any social or economic inequalities you might face, says Andrews.
Here’s a breakdown of the body fat locations most often looked at in research, and what we know about them.
You’ve probably heard about belly fat and the associated negative health outcomes.
“Gaining weight primarily in the belly is associated with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” notes Dr. Nicole Harkin, a cardiologist. “I am typically much more interested in a patient’s body composition or waist circumference than BMI, because we know belly weight is a better determinant of cardiovascular risk.”
Belly fat is usually made of both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. “It seems it’s visceral fat that is particularly dangerous, and the larger the amount of visceral fat, the higher the risk for cardiometabolic disease,” says Harkin. In fact, people with “healthy” BMIs may be at risk for poor health outcomes and cardiometabolic disease if they have a lot of belly fat.
While you can’t spot-reduce fat from an area of your body, including your belly, the good news is visceral belly fat may be easier to lose through lifestyle changes (like the ones suggested below) compared to other types of fat.
HIPS AND THIGHS
Fat stored around the hips generally isn’t associated with the same health problems as belly fat. In fact, a recent review in the British Medical Journal found larger waist measurements were associated with health risks, but larger hip and thigh measurements were not.
In fact, having larger hips and thighs relative to waist ratio was associated with a lower all-cause mortality risk, which may mean that having more body fat in these areas isn’t necessarily bad for your health. This may be due to two factors: Visceral fat isn’t found in these areas, and both measurements also include muscle — and having more muscle tissue is generally considered good for your health.
OVERALL BODY FAT
Total body fat is also an important measure, but the ideal amount for health isn’t as cut-and-dry as you might think. “When it comes to overall body fat levels, each person has a different range where they tend to feel best and that’s sustainable for them to maintain,” says Andrews.
Still, keeping total body fat in check is important because it can influence overall inflammation, Andrews notes. Chronic inflammation can attack healthy tissue and lead to problems like a weakened immune system, heart disease and cancer.
HOW TO MAINTAIN A HEALTHY LEVEL OF BODY FAT
If you’re wondering how to land yourself in your personally comfortable body fat range, there’s a lot you can do, experts say.
- Eat a high-quality diet. “Beyond just tracking calories and macros, you should aim for foods that are minimally-processed,” Andrews says. “Putting an emphasis on plant foods also seems to help.”
- Stay active. “Our understanding has evolved to show there can absolutely be health at every size, and exercise can be a great mitigating factor,” says Dr. Harkin. “Studies have shown overweight and obese indivuals who are fit have the same risk of death as ‘normal’-weight, fit individuals.” People who are sedentary have a higher risk of mortality regardless of their BMI. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous exercise per week.
- Drink mainly water, tea and/or coffee. “Sweetened beverages and alcohol, when consumed regularly, can promote body fat storage,” Andrews says. Staying hydrated with sparkling or still water, anti-inflammatory containing green tea and antioxidant-rich coffee (black or with a little milk) are your best bets.
- Manage stress levels. “High levels of stress drawn out over an extended period of time can influence mood, hormones, sleep, hunger, metabolism and body composition,” says Andrews. “When you notice your stress creeping up, make sure you have go-to strategies to rein things in.”
- Find your sleep sweet spot. Sleep is the foundation of all the other factors listed here, Andrews notes, making it one of the most important on this list. “We’re all different, so aim to find the amount of sleep that allows you to feel well-rested,” he advises. You can also take steps to unwind at night with a bedtime routine and should ensure you have a sleep sanctuary that’s cool and free of blue light from any devices.
- Understand that structural systems have an impact on health. Our physical, political and social environment can make it easier or more difficult to implement the habits listed above. Andrews’ advice: “Support leaders in your community or country who create policies that help make these practices easier for people who don’t have the bandwidth and finances to do them on their own.”
- Keep things in perspective. Having more body fat or belly fat is a marker for increased cardiovascular risk and should be taken seriously, Harkin says, but it doesn’t inevitably mean you’re in poor health. Instead of getting down on yourself, focus on positive self-talk, which can help you reach your goals sooner.
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