Here’s the most important points to understand about body fat
Fat (variously known as body fat, adipose tissue, or just plain fat) is essential to life. It’s not possible to have “zero body fat”, nor would such a condition be desirable. Fat serves to store energy for later use by the body, it cushions the body and organs, and serves as insulation. But perhaps most importantly – body fat is part of the endocrine system – the body’s system of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, mood, and other things. This is a relatively recent finding – and it has important health considerations.
Why Understanding Your Distribution of Body Fat is Important
In recent years, it has become clear that fat is an active part of the endocrine system, secreting the hormones leptin and resistin. The most important take-away from this discovery – fat can affect the organs which it is surrounding. Fat surrounding the organs has been shown (via research) to have serious detrimental effects – and pre-disposes an individual to higher risk for a number of serious health issues.
Types of Body Fat
Therefore, your body’s distribution of fat has important ramifications on your health. Not all fat is created equal. Let’s review the types of body fat.
The major types of body fat are:
- Visceral Fat – Also known as abdominal fat, intra-abdominal fat, or organ fat. It is found within the abdominal cavity. It surrounds several important organs – including the stomach, liver, intestines, and kidneys. It is important to note that men tend to accumulate this type of fat, due to sex hormone differences (when compared to women). Visceral fat can induce insulin resistance (Type 2 Diabetes) and excessive amounts greatly increase an individual’s risk for: heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
- Subcutaneous Fat – This type of found is found just under the skin. It can be found anywhere in the body. The typically female pattern of body fat distribution around the hips, thighs, and buttocks is subcutaneous fat. It is considered less harmful than visceral fat, but regardless, it has impacts on the endocrine system.
- Intramuscular Fat – As the name suggests, this is fat stored within skeletal muscle. It is thought to be a ready store of energy for muscle during exercise, but is also associated with the health risks of carrying excess body fat.
- Ectopic Fat – This is the storage of triglycerides outside of adipose tissue (where these are normally stored). When found in organs and muscle it can interfere with their normal operation at the cellular level. The liver, heart, pancreas, and muscle tissue should normally have very minimal levels of fat.
- Epicardial Fat – This is a particular type of visceral fat that surrounds the heart. Like all fat, it is a metabolically active organ, and is believed to have negative impacts on cardiac function.
- Marrow Fat – Fat contained within the bone marrow. This type of fat is not well understood.
- Brown Fat – Brown fat, named for it’s appearance, is largely found in the neck and thorax (chest) region. In addition to energy storage, it appears to have a function related to generating body heat. The amount of brown fat your body has may be genetically determined, and it’s generally found in greater quantities in infants.
While an excess of body fat of any type is known to increase health risks, the types of body fat surrounding organs (visceral, epicardial, ectopic) seem to have an outsize impact on risks. It’s fair to say these are the most concerning types of body fat.
The Best Way To Measure Body Fat
Now that we understand the relative differences between the types of body fat, let’s talk about how to measure body fat. What’s the best way to measure body fat? That depends – what exactly are you trying to figure out and what are your resources?
Body fat measurements range from crude to sophisticated, and closely linked is their accuracy and precision as well.
- Bioelectrical Impedance – This method involves using a device to run a very lower power electrical signal through two points on the body. The electrical signal will travel faster through lean tissue as compared to body fat, and therefore provides a rough estimate.
This method of measurement can be impacted via hydration levels and other factors. As such it’s best to establish a consistent method of using it.
- Skin Calipers –
- Water Tank/BodPod –
- DEXA scan –
While there are a variety of methods to measure your body fat, you can probably determine most of what you need to know from these two simpler methods:
- Body Mass Index (BMI) – The Body Mass Index (BMI) is an easy to calculate method that can only estimate body fat (or more accurately body mass). It’s an indirect estimate at best, so we recommend pairing it with a Waist Circumference measurement.
- Waist Circumference (Waist Size) – Waist Size can give you a direct understanding of the amount of visceral fat your body is carrying.
Combining those two items will give you a good rough understanding of where you stand.