From InBody, a company whose products we love to use in both of our New York offices. You can find InBody 570 in our Upper West Side and Westchester physical therapy offices
The mere mention of body fat conjures images of overweight, beer-bellied men or women with their jelly bellies and thunder thighs.
This is why you’ll find thousands of articles about losing body fat, or magazines loaded with front cover headlines that promise to get rid of x amount of body fat in x days.
But what if it’s not that simple? What if there’s more to body fat than just burning it?
Body fat is something everyone has an opinion on, but is not always clearly understood. As it turns out, there’s more to this conversation than just “X steps to lose body fat.” Your body requires some to be healthy, but it also requires you to keep those levels in check.
Let’s get to it.
What is Body Fat?
It seems like an obvious question: what is body fat? You're probably thinking that it's "the fat you can see and point at." Yes, that's true - but that's only half the picture.
Body fat can be broken down into smaller components, and to have a better understanding of how to manage your body fat, you first need to know how to talk about it.
ESSENTIAL FAT VS. STORAGE FAT
The first thing to understand is that just as food laden in fat doesn’t automatically make you fat because not all dietary fats are created equal, the same goes for body fat.
First off, there’s essential body fat. It plays a significant role in your overall health and as its name implies, it is essential for survival.
Present in organs, bone marrow, nerve cells, and the brain, your essential body fat helps you:
- Have sufficient energy reserves by acting as a metabolic fuel
- Conserve body heat by acting as an insulator
- Protect your internal organs and joints by acting as soft, fluffy cushion
- Reproduce; body fat and fertility are heavily linked to each other
Normal essential fat values are pegged at 3 percent and 8 to 12 percent for men and women, respectively. The higher fat ranges in women account for female-specific fat needs due to childbearing and similar reproductive functions.
Meanwhile, nonessential or storage fat is fat that accumulates as energy reserves.
While there’s no official standard for acceptable body fat values, the ranges 10-20 percent for males and 18-28 percent for women are good ranges to set goals around. These are slightly less forgiving than those set by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) - which acknowledges a range of 10-22 percent in men and 20-32 percent in women - because they’re centered around an average PBF of 15% for men and 23% for women.
If you’re figuring out the right body composition goal specific to you, these ranges are excellent starting points. It’s worth noting that body fat percentages should not be confused with BMI (body mass index) values.
SUBCUTANEOUS VS. VISCERAL FAT
Going one level further beyond essential and storage fat is the fact that storage fat itself can be further divided into two: subcutaneous and visceral.
Although they’re both components of storage fat, they’re quite different from each other. So different in fact, that these two types of fat have different gene expressions. This means they are literally different and function independently from each other.
Deposited underneath the skin, subcutaneous fat is fat that you can see, touch, and pinch. Because it’s visible and impacts body shape, this is the type of fat that typically motivates men and women to improve their body compositions.
This is also the type of fat pinched with skinfold calipers to determine body composition.
The skinfold test via fat calipers was once considered the standard in obtaining a general estimate of the amount of subcutaneous fat you have in the body. However, the usefulness of using body fat calipers has been called into question because, among other concerns, they aren’t able to accurately account for or report the second, more dangerous type of body fat.
This, of course, is visceral fat. It is invisible to the eye and comfortably snugs itself between your abdominal organs. Visceral fat is recognized as a worse health threat than subcutaneous fat. In fact, it’s considered a strong, independent predictor of all-cause mortality in men.
And then there’s metabolic obesity.
It happens when individuals have too much visceral fat (regardless of whether you’re lean or obese), increasing their risk for developing conditions like cardiovascular disease.
The mechanism behind visceral fat’s role as a health threat is largely attributed to the following:
- Visceral Fat as a Secretory Organ
Visceral fat used to be to thought of as an inert (inactive) tissue. However, it turns out that it’s a secretory (active) organ, capable of pumping out proteins just like your liver does, or your pancreas.
Again: visceral fat doesn’t just sit there. It’s active, and it contributes to poor health.
The proteins visceral fat produces are called cytokines, and they’re one of your immune system’s “foot soldiers.”Excess visceral fat pumps out much more of these cytokines than you need. Just like you wouldn’t want soldiers always patrolling your neighborhood, you don’t want more cytokines in your body triggering inflammation and putting unnecessary stress on your healthy organs.
- Visceral Fat’s Location
Visceral fat’s location near the portal vein (the vein that blood from the stomach, pancreas, and spleen uses to travel to to the liver) triggers the release of inflammatory cytokines that can potentially find their way to the liver too. As a result, these stealthy cytokines will influence lipid production in the liver and cause a ruckus in the form of insulin resistance and steatosis (fatty liver).
WHAT CAUSES TOO MUCH VISCERAL FAT?
Genetics may influence how you store fat in the body. Hereditary influences aside, the following are a few factors have been shown to increase your likelihood of increasing visceral fat accumulation:
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Sleep deprivation
- Inadequate aerobic (cardio) activity. This systematic review of previous studies on the subject found out that aerobic training of moderate or high intensity has the highest potential to reduce visceral fat among overweight individuals.
How You Gain Body Fat
So how do you gain and store body fat?
First off, let’s take a closer look at the evolutionary origins of obesity.
In The Scientific American, psychologist and science writer Jesse Bering described how storing fat helped our ancestors survive food shortages. However, it wasn’t until the Industrial age (which led to the industrialization of the food industry too) where societies or environments that tend to promote obesity began to take shape.
With no food shortages to worry about and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, fat stored by the body isn’t put into good use anymore. In short, excess fat just kept on piling up.
This detailed look on the origins of obesity also supports the idea that storing too much body fat and obesity is not primarily the result of one’s “internal biology” but rather how you respond to your “external environment,” which in many parts of the modern world, is characterized by an abundance of convenience and little need for exercise.
Put simply: How hard is it to find high-calorie foods? How much exercise is required to acquire it? On the other hand, how many of us have chronic stress from the hustle and bustle of daily life? Your response to the convenience as well as the stresses of the modern world has an enormous impact on your risk of gaining excess body fat and obesity.
Fortunately, you still have some control over how you respond by making choices regarding your diet and lifestyle.
WHAT IF YOU HAVE A "SLOW" METABOLISM?
It’s a common assumption that individuals with a supposedly “slow” metabolism gain body fat quickly.
While there is indeed a connection between metabolism and body composition, you don’t gain body fat because you’re a slow burner. As mentioned earlier, genetic influences may be at play in how your body stores fat, yet it’s the caloric imbalance over time that’s often responsible for your love handles and spare tires.
Overall, your metabolism doesn’t slow down because you’re getting older and have consumed more birthday cakes in your life. Rather, it’s largely due to two things that tend to happen as you age, but not because of it - a loss of muscle and a tendency towards a sedentary lifestyle.
This is good news for you because unlike the aging process - which is irreversible - you do have some control over both your muscle loss and your lifestyle habits.