By Ana Snyder, M.S., Exercise Physiology; CPT, FNS
Body fat has a bad reputation. Images of beer bellies or stubborn deposits on the thighs can quickly turn fat into something most people try to exercise away. But not all fat is created equal. As science gains a greater understanding of fat and its utility, researchers have started to divide fat into different categories. The main types of body fat are subcutaneous, visceral, brown fat, and beige fat.
Each type serves a different role in the body. While subcutaneous and visceral fats are types you want to lose due to increased health risks, brown and beige fat can be incredibly useful for your body. Curious to learn more about the different kinds of fat? Keep reading for a breakdown of subcutaneous, visceral, brown, and beige fat—and what you should know about each.
For people trying to lose weight and slim down, all fat might seem identical. The fat lying just under the skin is known as subcutaneous fat, and it usually appears due to genetics and lifestyle factors. A sedentary lifestyle, a lack of aerobic activity, insulin resistance, and consuming a caloric surplus usually leads to the presence of more subcutaneous fat.
Is subcutaneous fat bad for you? The answer might depend. This type of fat can help provide padding to protect muscles and bones, serve as insulation to regulate body temperature, and function as a passageway for nerves and blood vessels.
However, the presence of too much subcutaneous fat can place a person at risk for serious health conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancers. Additionally, a high amount of subcutaneous fat usually indicates the presence of visceral fat—which surrounds organs and can lead to a host of issues.
People looking to shed subcutaneous fat usually find the most success through strenuous exercise and an optimized diet.
Burning more calories than you eat through strength training, swimming, running, or cycling are sound ways to start losing subcutaneous fat. Fat-burning diets should focus on lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables while staying away from excess sugar and salt.
While some types of fat are considered healthy, visceral fat is not beneficial. This type of fat is stored within the abdominal cavity, which means it settles close to organs like the stomach and liver. Visceral fat can also build up in the arteries and contribute towards serious health issues.
Some researchers believe that visceral fat releases a certain type of retinol-binding protein that increases resistance to insulin. Carrying excess visceral fat increases a person’s risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain types of cancer.
Since visceral fat hides inside of the body, it can be hard to see how much of this type of fat a person has. Imaging technology like MRI or CT scans can be very expensive, even though they remain the most accurate way to confirm the presence of visceral fat. Most doctors will ask questions about a patient’s lifestyle and measure their waist to come up with a rough estimate as to the amount of excess visceral fat.
Ready to start losing visceral fat? Great! Changes to exercise routines and diets are an extremely effective way to make visceral fat disappear. Strive to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day to burn fat through aerobic and strength training. Optimize your workouts and get ready for the next one by consuming supplements like BCAA for recovery.
A healthy diet that substitutes protein and complex carbohydrates for processed and sugary foods will go a long way towards losing weight and visceral fat.
Scientists have been working hard to learn more about brown fat. Its main function is to transform food into body heat, and pockets of brown fat are often found close to the neck, shoulders, and collarbone area.
Under the right conditions, brown fat can actually create 300 times more heat than any other tissue inside of the body. Researchers now are looking into how brown fat can be “turned on” to help fight obesity. There’s also some speculation that exercise can stimulate certain hormones that activate this type of fat.
A 2014 study asserted brown fat becomes more active in colder temperatures. Brown fat remains the main tool for babies to stay warm, since they do not have the ability to shiver. Michael Symonds, of the University of Nottingham, suggested in 2013 that brown fat might function similarly to an “internal heating jacket” to keep blood warm as it flows from colder extremities back to the heart and brain.
Brown fat is something you don’t want to lose, but there aren’t any approved drugs to increase it inside a body. However, certain foods have been shown to help activate brown fat.
Apples and pears both contain ursolic acid, which helps revitalize brown fat, while turkey breast contains an amino acid that also aids in brown fat activation. Green tea has also been shown to help brown fat burn more calories, according to a Swiss study.
Beige fat is seen as a cousin of brown fat. While the two are similar, they’re not the same thing. Beige fat comes from white fat and is much more useful to adults. While adults usually have very few brown fat deposits, beige fat cells are scattered throughout different parts of the body.
Beige fat is able to burn off calories, which has led scientists to study the fat as part of a therapeutic solution for obesity and diabetes. Beige fat activates through a process called “browning,” where it then starts to behave like brown fat.
Unlike brown fat, which only activates when the body is cold, speculation is that beige fat can start to activate through social interaction, exercise, and even mild stress. Beige fat should not be seen as a magic tool for weight loss, but the burning process should be seen as a byproduct of a strong diet and regular exercise.
Since beige fat is usually seen in small deposits in the body, it’s not necessarily something you should want to try and eliminate. Instead, combine a strong diet with appropriate supplementation and exercise to burn away the “bad” fat while letting the beige (and brown fat) stick around. If you’re looking for an effective addition to your supplement stack, check out our Animal Cuts review.
Don’t get intimidated by the many types of fat in the body. Not all of it is created equal, and some types, like beige or brown fat, have significant benefits to health and energy. Adhering to a good diet and exercising regularly are the best strategies for keeping unhealthy subcutaneous and visceral fat at bay.