Not All Body Fat Is Bad: Here’s What You Need to Know

Over the years, body fat has become demonized. So much so, that it seems to only be associated with negative emotions and thoughts. But what you might not know is that some types of body fat, in healthy amounts, are actually good for you! Here's what you need to know about body fat — the good, the bad and the ugly.

You need body fat for essential functions. (Image: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages)

Types of Body Fat

"There is more than just one type of body fat existing in our bodies right now" says Will Cole, DC, functional medicine and clinical nutrition expert. And despite what you may have been told, the notion that body fat is always bad is misinformation.

Both types of body fat are essential several important bodily functions, such as regulating body temperature, storing and transporting fat-soluble vitamins, aiding in fertility, secreting hormones and insulating the body.

White vs. Brown Fat

"The body has two [main] types of fat — brown fat and white fat," he says. "White fat, typically known as 'adipose tissue' is the most common type of fat and it is the most prevalent in our bodies."

And you might not be too familiar with brown fat — it only takes up five percent of your body mass — but you should be. "Brown fat is considered good, since it has the ability to boost your metabolism and helps burn energy," says Dr. Cole. Not only does it help burn extra calories, it takes up less space in the body and can convert white fat and into brown.

Even though the amount of brown fat we have at birth decreases over time, there are things your can do to boost its production, such as exposing yourself to cold temperatures and regular exercise, says Dr. Cole.

Can you "pinch an inch"? That's subcutaneous fat. (Image: gpointstudio/iStock/GettyImages)

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat

These fats are then broken down into two other types of body fat — visceral and subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat, created from an abundance of white fat, can raise bad cholesterol levels, encourage inflammatory chemicals that can cause heart disease and even cancer.

"Visceral fat — the type responsible for your belly fat — is the worst kind of fat, as it accumulates around your organs and inside your abdominal cavity, putting severe stress on these organs, which can lead to further health problems," Dr. Cole says. Since too much of this type of fat can cause health problems, it's best to keep it at bay.

Harvard Health, for example, says that about 10 percent of all body fat is visceral fat. So, if you calculate your total body fat and then take 10 percent of it, you can estimate your amount of visceral fat.

Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand is the white fat just under the skin, says Dr. Cole. It's also the type of fat that's measured to determine body-fat percentage. This fat is found all over the body, but particularly on the thighs, buttocks and back of the arms.

Essential vs. Non-Essential Body Fat

"Non-essential body fat includes subcutaneous and visceral fat, since they are not necessary for normal body function," says Dr. Cole. "[But] everyone needs a certain amount of fat — known as essential fat — for the body to function optimally."

According to the American Council on Exercise, 10 to 13 percent body fat is considered essential fat for for women and two to five percent for men. This type of fat is found in muscles and certain organs like your brain. In fact, close to 60 percent of your brain is comprised of fat!

Optimal Body Fat Percentage

If you've been feeling the pressure to achieve or maintain a super low level of body fat to be fit, toss out those expectations. "The idea that you need to have five percent or less body fat to be healthy, is not true," says Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. "Even athletes still have six to 13 percent for men and 14 to 20 percent for women."

So how much body fat is considered healthy? The short answer is, it varies from person to person. "Factors such as age, height, gender and activity level all play a role in this process," Dr. Cole says.

According to the American Council on Exercise, "normal" (non-obese) body fat percentage ranges are anywhere from 21 to 31 percent for women and 14 to 25 percent for men.

Calculating Body Fat Percentage

The next natural question is how do you know how much body fat you have? The only 100-percent accurate way is with a CT or MRI scan. However, paying a visit to your doctor or a health and fitness professional trained in measuring body fat can also help give you an estimate of your body fat percentage.

In these visits, the professional will most likely use one of the following methods:

  • A body fat scale, which uses electrical currents to determine your body fat percentage
  • Calipers, which are essentially the scientific way to "pinch an inch"
  • Tape measure — if you want to go low-tech or DIY
  • Hydrodensitometry, a.k.a. underwater weighing
  • Bod Pod, which is similar to underwater weighing in calculations but without the water

If you're not up for someone else taking your body fat you can most certainly purchase a body fat caliper and measure your body fat percentage on your own!

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