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Some fat can improve our metabolism. Another type can wrap around the heart. Discover how body fat can help and harm our health Let's fa...




Some fat can improve our metabolism. Another type can wrap around the heart. Discover how body fat can help and harm our health

Let's face it: Fat has gotten an unfortunate rap. We curse the dimpled cellulite that has settled on our thighs and survey the pudge around our belly with a quick poke and a disapproving eye. But here’s the thing: Fat isn’t just a place where your body dumps extra calories. It’s an organ that can help, or harm, your health. (One type, brown fat, can actually turn your body into a calorie-burning machine!) “Everyone has fat, even Olympic marathon runners,” says Osama Hamdy, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program at Harvard University’s Joslin Diabetes Center. “Simply put, we need it to survive.” The trick is understanding the differences between the kinds of fat and keeping them in balance with diet, exercise, and some common sense.


WHERE IT IS: Directly underneath your skin. Subcutaneous fat can be anywhere: not just in your belly and butt but also your arms, legs, even your face.

WHAT IT DOES: In addition to storing energy and providing essential padding for your body, it has another important job: It generates the hormone adiponectin, which helps regulate insulin production. “Paradoxically, the fatter you are, the less adiponectin you produce,  which means that your body has trouble regulating insulin, increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Hamdy says.

HOW TO GET RID OF IT: Cutting calories is crucial for overall weight loss, but getting moving counts too: Women who walked, cycled, or took public transportation to work had about 1.5 percent less body fat than those who drove, according to a U.K. study. “It’s proof that those little bursts of activity count when it comes to burning fat,” notes Pamela Peeke, the author of Body for Life for Women. “Even just walking from the train station or bus to your office can burn on average an extra hundred calories.”

Already active? Ramp it up. “When you take your workout up a notch, you reach VO2 max—that’s the level of exertion where you have the optimal breakdown of body fat,” Peeke explains. “It also fools your body into thinking that you’re working out minutes after you’ve stopped, so you’re still burning calories.”


WHERE IT IS: Nestled deep within your belly, where it pads the spaces around your abdominal organs. You can’t feel or grab it.

WHAT IT DOES: Visceral fat has been dubbed “toxic” fat for a good reason: “It secretes inflammatory proteins called cytokines that affect insulin production and increase inflammation throughout the body, which raises the risk of developing type 2 diabetes  and heart disease,” Hamdy says. You can’t directly measure visceral fat unless you undergo an MRI or a CT scan.

The next best thing? Grab a tape measure and wind it around your waist; for women, if your midsection is more than 35 inches, you most likely have too much visceral fat, Hamdy says. A Mayo Clinic study published in 2014 found that Caucasian women with waist sizes above 37 inches were more likely to die from heart or respiratory disease.

Another sign of trouble appears when your numbers are off, meaning you’ve got low HDL (good) cholesterol and elevated blood glucose and triglyceride levels. “When a woman who has been lean most of her life gains 10 to 20 pounds at age 40 or so, she may not even be technically overweight, but it’s usually visceral fat that’s adding the extra weight,” explains Caroline Cederquist, a bariatric physician in Naples, Fla., and the author of The MD Factor Diet.

HOW TO BLAST IT OFF: “To mobilize visceral fat, a balanced diet is essential,” Cederquist says. “Eat lean protein throughout the day while controlling your carb and fat intake.” For keeping visceral fat off, cardio is the way to go: a 2011 Duke University study found that regular aerobic exercise, the equivalent of jogging about 12 miles a week at 80 percent maximum heart rate, was the best workout for losing visceral fat in particular.


WHERE IT IS: Mainly around your neck, collarbone, and chest. For years, researchers assumed that it was present primarily in infants, helping to keep them warm, and that it gradually disappeared during childhood. But in 2009, studies revealed that some adults still have brown cells.

WHAT IT DOES: This buzzed-about “good” fat becomes metabolically active when we’re exposed to cold temperatures, burning up energy. “Since brown fat is used to generate heat, it burns more calories at rest,” says Ruth Loos, a professor of personalized medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City as well as codirector of Mount Sinai’s Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine. Fifty grams (about 4 tablespoons) of brown fat, if maximally stimulated, could torch about 300 calories a day.

HOW TO BEEF IT UP: Since brown fat is activated by cold, prepare to shiver. According to a study in Cell Metabolism, folks who spent 10 to 15 minutes in temperatures below 60 degrees produced a hormone  called irisin, which appears to make white fat cells act like brown fat; they got a similar boost from an hour of moderate exercise at warmer temperatures. And keep your thermostat low: an Australian study showed that men who lived in homes set to 66 degrees generated 40 percent more brown fat than when they lived in higher temperatures.


The best way to determine whether you’re carrying too much flab is to check your body-fat percentage. A healthy range is between 20 percent and 25 percent for young women and up to 30 percent after age 50, Peeke says. Skip the skin calipers (they pinch the skin around your upper arm, thigh, and stomach); results can be off by as much as 5 percent. Peeke’s recommendation: an at-home bioelectrical impedance scale, which sends an electrical current through your body and measures how fast it returns. Other methods, such as underwater weighing (you’re dunked into a pool to measure your body fat) and DEXA scans (which use an X-ray to determine body composition, including body fat, lean muscle, and bone density), are more accurate, but you’ll have to go to a health clinic to get measured.


Skin dimples happen when subcutaneous fat cells collect in pockets and push against the connective tissue under your skin. You can minimize their appearance by staying at a healthy weight and doing strength-training moves (more muscle equals tauter skin). Caffeine-infused creams (such as Clarins Body Lift Cellulite Control) can temporarily de-puff fat cells for a smoother look.


Ectopic fat has the same metabolic properties as visceral fat, but instead of padding your abdominal organs, it settles in your heart, liver, pancreas, and muscles. “Most of us have only a few pounds of ectopic fat,” Hamdy says. “Even so, it’s dangerous because it’s inside vital organs and can increase the risk of heart disease, liver damage, and type 2 diabetes.”

The only way to tell if you have ectopic fat is by getting an MRI or a CT scan. One key way to avoid this problem is to stay active. The more you sit, the more likely you are to have this fat around your heart, according to a University of California, San Diego, study.


RESISTANCE TRAIN: A strength workout that incorporates high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will help burn calories and fat stores at a higher rate than one done in straight sets, says trainer Gunnar Peterson. The drill: Do eight repetitions of different types of body-weight-resistance activities (chin-ups, squats, burpees, etc.), alternating 20 seconds of work with 10 seconds of rest.

REST: Yet another benefit of getting a good night of sleep: A Brigham Young University study found that women who slept between eight and eight and a half hours a night had the lowest levels of body fat. Why? Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on hormones that control fat metabolism. If you have trouble getting a solid seven or eight hours of rest, try shutting down your devices at least one hour before bedtime. Also make sure your room is dark; light from alarm clocks and the street can interrupt sleep.

RELAX: Doing yoga can reduce cortisol levels—high levels of the stress hormone have been linked to belly fat. In fact, obese postmenopausal women who practiced yoga for 16 weeks reported significant reductions in visceral fat, according to a Korean study.


CHILDHOOD: The number of fat cells you have is set early on, so you don’t actually get more of them when you gain weight. Instead, those fat cells swell as triglycerides (i.e., fatty acids) are stored in them. If enough fat cells expand in size, your body begins to, well, expand too. Boys tend to be born with more fat cells in their belly, while girls are born with more fat cells in their hips, thighs, and butt, in preparation for storing fat during pregnancy.

ADOLESCENCE: Between ages 9 and 19, the volume of fat in girls more than doubles, due in part to a surge of the female hormone estrogen. “Your body starts producing estrogen in preparation for having a baby and nursing years down the road. That estrogen helps fuel the growth of fat cells,” Peeke says.

POST-PREGNANCY: There’s a reason it is so difficult to shed that extra fat after having a baby. It’s a throwback to our caveperson days, says Peeke. “It’s reserve storage for the demands of breastfeeding,” she explains. This helps ensure that new mothers can feed their babies in times of famine. So even though breastfeeding burns about 500 calories a day, your body is hardwired to hold on to some fat deposits, and you may not lose those last five or 10 pounds until after you wean.

MENOPAUSE: Until this point , most women still store fat around their lower half , but once they go through menopause, their fat-storage patterns mimic men’s, which means putting on weight around their middle.


Some research suggests yes, but the answer isn’t entirely clear yet. A 2013 study found that although overweight people may have a higher life expectancy than normal-weight people, they spend those years in poorer health.

“While certain types of fat, particularly subcutaneous fat, may not have the impact on your heart that visceral fat does, they can affect your quality of life,” Peeke says. “If you’re heavy, you’re more likely to develop osteoarthritis or just have trouble moving around.” A 2021 study found that participants with obesity were more likely to have high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure compared to participants at healthier weights.


DAIRY: People who consumed more dairy while on a low- calorie diet lost two and a half more pounds of fat than those who didn’t, according to a review published in the International Journal of Obesity.

PROTEINS: Research has shown that people lose more visceral fat on a lower-carb, higher-protein diet than they do on a low-fat diet that’s high in carbohydrates, Hamdy points out.

OATMEAL: For e very 10-gram increase insoluble fiber consumed per day, visceral fat was reduced by 3.7 percent over five years, according to a study at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

OLIVE OIL: Recent research has found that unsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil are likely more beneficial than saturated fats when it comes to healthy weight maintenance.

FATTY FISH: Omega-3s (found in salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines, as well as flaxseed and walnuts) may help reduce abdominal fat. And—bonus!—they may be protective for your heart too.