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Everything you need to know about Body Fat

None of us want body fat. This is a given fact. That so many of us pay close attention to how we eat and to put in at least some kind of exercise testifies to the fact that we are trying to avoid too much body fat. 

But despite the popular use of the term body fat, not all of it is bad. There are different types of body fat. Some body fat is necessary for health. Other types of body fat can lead to health problems. 

The key here is to understand what body fat is. What types of body fat do we mean when we talk about losing or avoiding body fat? How do we keep track of the right kind of body fat? And what are the factors that affect body fat? This guide is all about the subject of body fat and how to properly understand body fat for good health and fitness. 

What is body fat?

Body fat is known in medical terms as adipose tissue. It works as a reserve of energy when you do not have a direct supply from dietary sources. Adipose tissue, or body fat, provides a protective layer on the body. 

Our health depends on a certain amount of body fat and specific types of body fat. We most often talk about body fat as if it is one thing and it is to be avoided. The truth is body fat comes in different forms. Some body fat is necessary for us to be healthy and even survive.  

The amount of body fat we carry at any given time is also an important factor. Body fat is usually measured in a percentage. Our body fat percentage is one factor among many that describe our level of health and fitness. 

Types of body fat

There are three main types of body fat. Each plays a different role in the body, and at least one type of body fat is made up of a combination of adipose tissue. 

There are three kinds of fat in the body. White fat, brown fat, and beige or brite fat. 

White fat is what most people think of when they talk about body fat. White fat is made up of large white cells that are stored under the skin. White fat is also stored around the main organs and in the belly, arms, buttocks, and thighs. White fat is how the body stores energy for later use. 

White fat cells are important for many physiological functions. It plays an important role in hormone functions for things like estrogen, leptin which stimulates hunger, insulin, cortisol, and growth hormones. 

It is important to maintain some white fat. When we accumulate too much white fat, we begin to risk health problems. Healthy levels of white fat depend entirely on diet and exercise.

Beige, or brite fat. This type of fat functions in between white and brown fat cells. It is thought that beige fat cells burn fat rather than store it in the body. 

There are specific enzymes that release beige fat when we are cold, stressed, or when you need to convert white fat cells into energy. 

These forms of body fat play a role in the three types of body fat that concern us here. The three types of body fat include:

Subcutaneous

This refers to the fat stored just under the skin. Subcutaneous body fat consists of a combination of brown, beige, and white fat cells. Most of our body fat is subcutaneous body fat. 

Health professionals use calipers to measure subcutaneous body fat to estimate body fat percentage and gauge how to work toward fitness and health. 

A small amount of body fat is considered healthy. It is when we carry too much excess subcutaneous body fat that we start to develop health problems. 

Visceral

This type of fat is more problematic. Often called “belly fat,” visceral body fat is made up of white adipose tissue cells. It is stored in your abdomen and around all your major organs like the liver, kidneys, pancreas, intestines, and heart. 

High levels of visceral fat can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arterial diseases, and some types of cancer. 

Brown

Brown fat cells are primarily found in babies. However, some brown fat is retained into adulthood. We typically store brown fat in the neck and shoulders. 

Brown fat serves an important function. It burns fatty acids to keep you warm. Researchers are studying the possibility that brown fat cells may help prevent obesity. 

How to calculate body fat

Body fat percentage can be calculated in several ways. There are methods to determine body fat percentage that are extremely precise and are generally used for specific medical purposes. Then there are methods to determine body fat percentage that give more of an estimate but which can be used to set up a health and fitness plan. 

The three main ways to determine body fat percentage include: 

Skinfold calipers

This method for estimating body fat percentage has been used for decades. Skinfold calipers give you enough information to work toward health and fitness. Skinfold calipers measure the subcutaneous fat in several key locations around the body. Usually, anywhere from 3-7 measurements are taken to get a good sense of body fat percentage. 

For women, measurements are taken at the triceps, just above the hip bone, the thigh, and abdomen. For men, measurements are typically taken at the chest, abdomen, thigh, triceps, and beneath the scapula. Sometimes measurements are taken at the armpit areas and below the shoulder blades. 

Depending on the skill of the person taking the measurements, skinfold calipers can give an accurate measurement of body fat percentage within about a 3-5 percent margin of error. This is generally sufficient unless greater accuracy is necessary for medical reasons. 

Body circumference measurements

You can get a sense of your body fat percentage by measuring certain parts of your body. Body circumference measurements are used by the US military to determine body fat percentage. 

There is a simple equation for using these measurements. For men, measure the neck and waist circumference. For women, measure the circumference of the hips, neck, and waist. The accuracy rate for body circumference measurements can be within a 2-4 percent error range. 

Hydrostatic weighing

This is a method in which your body is weighed underwater. Also called hydrodensitometry, hydrostatic weighing can be used to measure several forms of body density. 


The technique involves weighing your body while you are submerged in water after exhaling as much air from your lungs as you can. Another measurement is taken of your weight on dry land. 


These measurements are entered into an equation that can give an accurate account of your body fat percentage, among other body density calculations. 

Ideal body fat percentage

There are two different measurements to determine your healthy weight and fat percentage. Body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage. BMI does not vary according to women and men. It is an index of measurements. Healthy body fat percentages are different for men and women, and a healthy body fat percentage will also vary according to your athletic levels and age.  

The ranges for body fat percentage are below: 

For women

Essential fat: 10-13 percent

Athletes: 14-20 percent

Fitness: 21-24 percent

Acceptable: 25-31 percent

Obese: More than 32 percent

For men

Essential fat: 2-5 percent

Athletes: 6-13 percent

Fitness: 14-17 percent

Acceptable: 18-24 percent

Obese: More than 25 percent

Factors that affect body fat

Several factors can affect your body fat percentage. Some of these are well within your control. Others are not within your control. Body fat percentage depends on:

Genetics

Some people are simply genetically predisposed to accumulate and store body fat. This is simply a fact of biology. Other people need to make efforts to retain body fat. If you have a shorter trunk and short legs, you are likely to retain body fat. People with longer bodies tend to be leaner. It is not much you can do about genetics. Some of us simply need to work harder than others to lose body fat. 

Age

As we age, we are more likely to lose lean body mass and begin to retain body fat. Aging also makes it more difficult to lose body fat once you have it. This is not necessarily inevitable. Some of this tendency to lose lean body mass and gain body fat is due to an overall decrease in physical activity. By staying active, you are much more likely to avoid gaining body fat as you age.  

Sex

Women need to store more body fat than men. Some of this is due to the reproductive demands of a female body. However, with the right kind of exercise and diet, women do not necessarily have to gain body fat at a rate faster than men. 

Kinds of activity

Aerobic exercise is the best way to keep body fat off and to lose body fat if you have already gained it. Aerobic activity burns the most body fat. If you are interested in building lean body mass while losing body fat, make sure to include resistance exercise with your aerobic workout. 

Amount of activity

Obviously, an increase in the amount of physical activity will increase the quantity of body fat you burn. It is important to pay attention to your caloric intake when upping the amount of activity. If you do not take in sufficient calories while engaging in physical activity, you can do more harm than good.

Nutrition

This is the age-old balance of calories and exercise. If you take in more than you burn, you will start to accumulate body fat. Once the fat is on, it is hard to get it back off. You also need to pay attention to the types of calories you consume. Macronutrients like fats, carbs, and proteins are all processed in the body in different ways. The most obvious example is sugars. If you get too many of your calories from sugars you are going to gain body fat. 

Body Fat FAQs

What is body fat? 

Body fat is known in medical terms as adipose tissue. It works as a reserve of energy when you do not have a direct supply from dietary sources. Adipose tissue, or body fat, provides a protective layer on the body. 

What are the different types of body fat?

Body fat exists as white, brown, and beige body fat. It can be classified as visceral and subcutaneous body fat. 

How do I measure body fat percentage?

The easiest way to measure body fat percentage is with skinfold calipers. 

What are some of the things that affect body fat percentage? Probably the most common factors for body fat percentage are genetics, levels of exercise, and diet. 

Conclusion

So much of what we know about fat appears to be based on the idea that fat is just one simple thing. We talk about fat as if it is all bad and to be avoided. The truth is, there are many types of fat and not all of them are bad for us. 

We need some body fat just to maintain our health. Certain types of body fat are necessary for basic physiological functions. Recent research suggests that some kinds of fat help burn body fat.

But we all know that if we are not careful, body fat can be a problem. Factors like genetics, exercise levels, and diet determine how much body fat we carry at any given time. But we can all do things to help reduce our body fat percentage to healthy levels. 

Eating right, exercise, and staying active are the best ways to regulate body fat at healthy levels. And we can keep this up even as we age. 

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