Not all body fat is created equal. Your body actually contains three types of fat, which it stores in different ways, and it has a preference when it comes to which fat stores are tapped when you lose weight.
Here, get the lowdown on the different types of body fat and which are the first to go.
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Body Fat Basics
White and brown are the two main types of fat in the body, but scientists have also more recently identified a third type, called beige fat.
White fat: Also called white adipose tissue (WAT), white fat is the type most of us think of when talking about body fat. It's a storage fat, meaning that when we consume excess calories, that extra energy goes to our bodies' white fat cells and is stored as lipids, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. These fat cells increase in size and number over time as you consume more calories than you burn, which leads to weight gain.
Brown fat: Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is a type of fat that's activated when you get cold. Brown fat uses energy (burns calories) to generate heat (thermogenesis), which helps maintain your body temperature, per the Mayo Clinic.
Surprisingly, leaner individuals have been found to have more brown fat than those who have obesity. Brown fat surrounds organs, major arteries and veins, and it can sometimes be found in the neck and armpits, between the shoulder blades and in the abdomen.
Beige fat: Like brown fat, beige fat is linked to a healthy weight. This type of fat is scattered in pea-sized deposits under the skin, near the collarbone and along the spine, according to Harvard Medical School. While it is genetically distinct from brown fat, beige fat also burns calories to generate body heat.
Some studies have shown that hormones released during exercise, extreme stress or time spent in the cold can turn white fat to beige or brown fat. However, most of the studies have been small or done only in animals, so more research is needed to better understand beige and brown fat.
Other Body Fat Terms to Know
White, brown and beige fat can be further broken down into soft and hard fat.
Soft fat, also known as subcutaneous fat, is the type you can pinch, and according to Harvard Health Publishing, 90 percent of body fat in most people is the soft kind. It's located just underneath your skin and acts as insulation and a source of energy for your body. It's a combo of white, brown and beige fat.
Subcutaneous fat produces beneficial molecules, such as the hormone leptin, which sends signals to the brain to inhibit hunger. Adiponectin is another hormone produced by soft fat that improves the body's sensitivity to insulin and protects against type 2 diabetes. Of course, too much white fat throws hormones levels out of balance.
Visceral fat, or hard belly fat is located deep in your abdomen and wrapped around your organs, arteries and veins, per Harvard Health Publishing. Hard fat is evident when your belly protrudes forward and isn't squishy. Due to the production of certain proteins, this fat is linked to insulin resistance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Essential fat is just that — fat essential to your health, necessary for normal bodily functioning and not considered a storage fat. It regulates hormones that control fertility, vitamin absorption and body temperature, and is found in your bone marrow, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles and lipid-rich tissues throughout the central nervous system. The average person assigned male at birth (AMAB) will have 2 to 5 percent essential body fat, while those assigned female at birth (AFAB) should be in the 10 to 13 percent range. (Keep in mind, everyone is different and body fat depends on more than biological sex. It depends on factors like genetics, physical activity, underlying conditions, etc.)
Fat Loss: What Goes First?
The easiest type of fat to lose is white visceral fat, aka harmful deep-belly fat. This is typically the first to go when you lose weight. The active nature of visceral fat — what makes it so threatening in terms of your health — also makes it vulnerable to loss. This hard belly fat, according to the Mayo Clinic, responds to the same diet and exercise methods that help you lose weight and body fat overall.
"When you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose visceral fat first. The reason why it is easier to lose that fat first is because when your body is in a calorie deficit, it will mobilize excess fat for energy. So if you are storing excess fat in the abdominal area, it will take it from there first," says Amanda Mancini, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified fitness trainer, weight-loss specialist and corrective exercise specialist.
Subcutaneous fat, while less dangerous to your health, is far more stubborn and harder to lose. You may have to up your activity to meet your goals. Spot exercising, such as doing sit-ups, can tighten abdominal muscles, but it won't necessarily reduce visceral fat.
How to Lose Body Fat
Because about 1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories, you need to burn approximately 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound. So, if you cut about 500 to 1,000 calories a day from your normal diet, you can potentially lose 1 to 2 pounds a week. This is generally a safe and sustainable rate of weight loss, per the Mayo Clinic.
Now if you're carrying excess weight, it means you're taking in more energy (calories) then you're burning. That extra energy is stored in fat cells as triglycerides. When you burn more calories than you're take in, your body turns to its fat storage for energy. Fat then leaves your body as water through sweat or urine, or through your lungs, as carbon monoxide, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
When you exercise or do any physical activity, your muscles get energy from stored glycogen. High-intensity cardio burns fat, but strength and resistance training are also recommended, because muscle mass helps to burn more calories and fat, and it increases metabolic rate. A February 2015 study in Obesity concluded that out of various physical activities, strength training had the biggest impact on waist circumference change in men.
Fat Loss Is Proportional
Targeted fat loss, known as spot reduction, is an attractive notion. But you can't actually target where you lose weight on your body, for a number of reasons.
Remember that extra energy is stored in fat cells as triglycerides, but muscle cells can't directly use triglycerides as fuel. The fat has to be broken down into glycerol and free fatty acids first, which then enter the bloodstream, where they can be used for energy. The fat that gets broken down, though, can come from anywhere in the body, not just the area you're trying to target, according to Yale Scientific Magazine.
"Fat loss is shown to happen evenly through the body," Jim White, RDN, certified exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "If it seems like areas of your body are looking more defined than others, it does not mean you are losing more fat in that targeted area. Rather, that area in general has less fat storage. For example, if you have a lot of fat around your waist, it will take longer to shed that fat than the fat in other parts of your body simply because there is more there."
Doing tons of crunches daily can absolutely strengthen your abdominal muscles, but you won't get that visible six-pack unless you reduce your overall body fat. As long as you combine exercise with a healthy, reduced-calorie diet, though, those extra pounds and fat will slowly but surely disappear.
- American Council on Exercise: "What are the Guidelines for Percentage of Body Fat Loss?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Brown Fat, White Fat, Good Fat, Bad Fat"
- University of Utah Health: "Turning White Fat into Good Fat"
- Diabetes: "Anatomical Locations of Human Brown Adipose Tissue: Functional Relevance and Implications in Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Taking Aim at Belly Fat"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Fight Fat to Help Your Heart"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight Loss Basics"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Where Does Body Fat Go When You Lose Weight?"
- Obesity: "Weight Training, Aerobic Physical Activities, and Long-Term Waist Circumference Change in Men"
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Women: Taking — and Keeping — it Off"
- Yale Scientific Magazine: "Targeted Fat Loss: Myth or Reality?"
- Mayo Clinic: "What is brown fat? How is it different from other body fat?"
- Harvard Medical School: "'Beige Fat' Cells Could Help Fight Obesity"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "White Fat, Brown Fat, Bad Fat, Good Fat"