Body fat 101: Understanding the different kinds + 4 tips to manage it

picture of fat tissue

In the realm of nutrition, we hear a lot about “good fat” and “bad fat.” But how much do we know about the fat that exists in our bodies?

There are actually several types of fat, and each has different functions, says Tyler Waclawski, certified exercise physiologist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“Your body needs fat for proper energy storage, blood sugar regulation, organ function, and hormone- and metabolism-management,” says Waclawski. “However, too much of any kind of fat can lead to increased risk of diseases such as diabetes and cancer.”

3 types of body fat

1. White

“When we talk about body fat, white fat is the type most people think of,” says Waclawski. “A certain amount of white fat is essential for bodily functions, and its ability to store energy for later use is the reason people don’t have to eat non-stop to have energy.”

White fat cells are found under skin and around organs in the belly, arms, butt and thighs. Many necessary hormones are stored in white fat, including:

  • Estrogen
  • Insulin
  • Cortisol
  • Growth hormone
  • Leptin (which tells your body when you’re full)

Too much white fat, however, can lead to negative health effects, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Cancer

2. Brown

Brown fat is mostly found in babies, but adults do retain a small amount, typically in the neck and shoulders.

Brown fat’s main job is to keep your body warm and working at the proper temperature (thermoregulation), however new research indicates that brown fat may play a role in fighting obesity.

“The more brown fat cells you have, the more calories you burn, but we don’t know exactly how to get more brown fat,” says Waclawski. “Experts think an active lifestyle or cold exposure therapy might help, but it’s a balancing act just like any fat. Some brown fat is good, but you don’t want it in excess either.”

3. Beige

Beige fat functions somewhere between brown and white fat, which is why it’s also known as “brite” — aka “brown-in-white” — fat.

“Beige doesn’t have much of a functional purpose for humans today,” says Waclawski. “It helps with heat, but not as much as brown fat. The main interest in it is similar to the interest in brown: It may be able to help burn fat rather than just store it.”

Other body fat terms to know

Essential fat

Essential fat is a term for any white, brown or beige fat that’s essential to your body’s function. It’s found most often in the:

  • Brain
  • Bone marrow
  • Nerves
  • Organ-protecting membranes

In general, essential fat for people in good health will make up:

  • 10-13% of a female’s body
  • 2-5% of a male’s body

Subcutaneous

Subcutaneous fat is any white, brown or beige fat that’s stored right under (sub) the skin (cutaneous). Most body fat is subcutaneous — think of any fat you can pinch with your fingers on your arm, belly, thighs or butt.

Some subcutaneous fat is normal, but too much can throw off your hormones.

Visceral

Visceral fat is the easiest type of fat to define — and the most dangerous type for most people.

Visceral fat is:

  • White
  • Also known as “belly fat”
  • Stored around all major organs: stomach, liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, heart
  • Increases your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers

Body fat percentages

Body fat depends on many factors, including height, weight, body type, sex and age.

“Every body type and age group is different,” says Waclawski. “For example, a healthy 18-year-old male should have a body fat percentage in the 15-20% range. For a 55-year-old male, it should be closer to 25%.”

According to the American Council on Exercise, non-athlete body fat percentages should be:

  • Male: 14-24%
  • Female: 21-31%

Measuring body fat percentage

The most common methods for determining body fat are measuring circumferences (waist, hips, neck, etc.) or measuring skinfolds using calipers (aka the “pinch” method most people don’t enjoy very much). A simple waist measurement, however, can give you a lot of insight on its own, says Wacklawski.

“If you’re a female, the recommendation is to keep your waist under 35 inches,” says Waclawski. “If you’re male, the goal is to keep it under 40 inches. When you have excess fat around essential organs and the abdomen, your risk factors for diseases increase, which is why waist circumference can tell us so much.”

4 specific tips to improve your body fat percentage

“The best way to manage body fat is to work toward a healthy, active, stress-free lifestyle,” says Waclawksi. “Obviously, that’s easier said than done! But taking small steps can have a big impact.”

1. Strength training

“Cardio is great, but you need to balance it with strength training to reduce body fat,” says Waclawski. “A pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat. That means the more muscle you build, the more fat you’ll burn, even when you’re resting. Try to work up to 5 days of cardio and 2 days of strength training per week. Or, whatever your schedule is, rotate in strength training for every third workout.”  

2. Less processed food

“If you only do one thing to improve your diet, try cutting out processed foods and added sugar,” says Waclawski. “That one change will make a huge difference to your health.”

3. More quality sleep

“The biggest thing most people can do is cut down on screen time, which can be as simple as avoiding screens 30 minutes before bed,” says Waclawski. “Instead, try meditation, drawing, journaling or reading. Even a 30-minute window should help you fall asleep easier, and get better sleep once you do.”

4. Controlled stress

“Cutting down on stress has been proven to help control damaging visceral fat,” says Waclawski. “Breathing exercises are a free and easy way to do it.” Try 3 breathing exercises to help you instantly de-stress.

Read more articles by Tyler Waclawski

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.

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Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).