Fat is a tissue in the body used for a wide variety of functions—from temperature regulation and hormone production to shock absorption and the regulation of certain nutrients. When body fat becomes excessive, however, it can increase your risk of diseases and health problems. In this article, we’re going to discuss what body fat is, how to lose body fat, and how to maintain a healthy body fat percentage.
What Is Body Fat?
The scientific term for body fat is "adipose tissue." Adipose tissue serves a number of important functions in the body, but its primary purpose is to store lipids that the body uses to create energy. It also secretes hormones, stores certain nutrients, and provides insulation for the body. (1)
There are a few different types of fat tissue in the body:
- White fat
- Brown fat
- Beige fat
- Essential fat
- Subcutaneous fat
- Visceral fat
White fat is composed of large, white cells stored under the skin or around the body’s organs and is the primary type of fat used for storing energy for later use. It also plays various roles in important body functions—particularly in the production of certain hormones. It is necessary to maintain some white fat in the body, but too much can be harmful and can increase your risk of developing certain diseases like diabetes, hormone imbalances, heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease and liver disease. (2)
Brown fat is a type of fat primarily found in newborns, though adults still have small amounts of brown fat as well. Brown fat plays a role in temperature regulation and helps to burn fatty acids to keep your body warm.
Beige fat is a type of fat that has been discovered in recent years and, like brown fat, it also helps your body burn fat for temperature regulation—as opposed to white fat that helps your body store fat for energy.
Essential fat is the type of fat found in essential organs like the brain, nerves, bone marrow, and organ membranes. It plays vital roles in hormone and temperature regulation, as well as in nutrient absorption. (2)
Subcutaneous fat is the type of fat found underneath the skin. The skin is made of three layers—the epidermis, the dermis and subcutaneous fat. This is the type of fat that most people at the gym are trying to get rid of to reveal more muscle beneath the skin. Most body fat is subcutaneous fat, and this is the type of fat that is measured to calculate your total body fat percentage. While some subcutaneous fat is essential, too much of it in the body can be harmful. (2)
Visceral fat is the “belly fat” composed of white fat stored around your abdomen and major organs. It plays a protective role, helping to insulate and protect your vital organs. Too much of it, however, can increase your risk for certain diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. (2)
How to Calculate Body Fat Percentage
There are actually many ways to accurately calculate body fat percentage—some involving high-tech gadgets like dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry scans (DEXA). However, assuming that you don’t want to go get an X-ray to determine your body fat, you can also calculate your body fat by using a cheaper device called a caliper.
A caliper is a device used to measure the dimensions of an object. Skinfold calipers measure the thickness of your subcutaneous fat at certain locations on your body. The measurements are typically taken at either 3 or 7 different body sites—most often the chest, abs, and thighs. To measure body fat with a caliper, pinch the skin at each of these sites, pulling the muscle away from the fat and measure the fold of fat with the calipers. Then, after you have measured all the locations and have an average of each individual measurement, you can plug the measurements into a formula to determine your overall body fat percentage (note that the formulas for calculating body fat percentage are different for males and females).
What Is a Healthy Body Fat Percentage?
There is no exact number that is ideal for the body percentage of each person, but there are healthy ranges of body fat that are recommended to stay within. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, healthy body fat percentages are based on your age:
"For people aged 20 to 39, women should aim for 21% to 32% of body fat. Men should have 8% to 19%. For people 40 to 59, women should fall between 23% to 33% and men should fall around 11% to 21%." (3)
Excess body fat can interfere with normal body function and contributes to major causes of death and disability, including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, fatty liver, and depression.
Too little body fat, however, can cause deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins and can increase the risk of heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, nervous system damage, organ shrinkage and impaired immune system function.
How to Lose Body Fat
Losing body fat can be challenging and requires consistent efforts to change your diet, lifestyle and exercise habits. Essentially, to lose body fat you need to restrict calories and put your body in a calorie deficit—meaning you are burning more calories each day than you are consuming. This causes your body to burn fat for energy, resulting in fat loss. (4)
A calorie is a unit of energy. So, if you eat something that is 300 calories, it means that your body will gain 300 units of energy after eating that food. To avoid gaining weight from that food, your body will have to burn the same number of calories or more, creating a calorie deficit.
While you can burn fat by focusing on eating less calorie-dense foods and exercising more, you will get the best results if you monitor your daily caloric intake and the number of calories burned with exercise.
According to Orlando Health:
“To lose a pound of fat, you’ll need to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume in a week. In other words, to drop one pound a week, you must have a deficit of 500 calories a day. For two pounds, you’ll need a deficit of 1,000 calories a day. This calorie reduction can be achieved by increasing activity levels or eating fewer calories, although a combination of both is ideal.”
The best way to succeed with your fat loss goals is to come up with a meal plan and exercise plan that helps you consume your desired number of calories and burn your desired number of calories with your exercises. It can be hard work to burn body fat, and usually requires some major changes in our diet and lifestyle habits.
The best types of foods to focus on when trying to burn fat and improve your health include:
- Whole grains
- Lean meats
- Nuts (small amounts)
- Seeds (small amounts)
- Low-fat dairy products
The best type of exercise for fat burning is cardio exercise, however, studies have shown that a combination of strength training and cardio helps to burn fat quicker than cardio alone. (5)
How Does Fat Leave the Body?
Some people may wonder, when losing body fat, where does the fat go? How does fat leave the body? Essentially, your body uses body fat to store energy and it burns up body fat for energy use when needed. So, where is that body fat going? It’s going into all that hard work and exercise that you are doing!
Consistency is Key
When it comes to fat loss, or improving your health in any way, consistency is key. Being disciplined with your diet and workout routine and sticking with it day after day is how you get the best results. Of course, you can still enjoy some high-calorie foods from time to time or have “cheat days” now and then, but it really depends on what your goals are.
Think deeply about your health and fitness goals. What is it that you really want for your body and your health? What are the health goals that inspire you? Write them down, make a plan, and allow these goals to inspire you to stay consistent. Having a strong “why” is what will keep you inspired on the challenging days and will ultimately help you reach your goals.
Having a good daily routine can also help you turn your diet and workout practices into healthy habits. It can be challenging to get started, but once you make a habit out of these lifestyle changes they become much easier to maintain.
Plus, while it may be hard work, it feels amazing! The endorphins released from exercise and the increase in energy from healthy eating will naturally boost your mood and overall well-being—and once you see how much better life feels when you take good care of yourself, exercising more and eating better become things you truly desire to do each day.
Fat loss may be a short-term goal, but the long-term goal should be to take good care of your health so you can enjoy life to the fullest. Above all, enjoy your health journey and the daily progress of meeting your health goals.