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What Is Subcutaneous Fat? (From A Nutritionist)

As a personal trainer, I've noticed that many of my clients trying to lose weight assume that all fat is the same.

However, there are two kinds of fats that differ by their location in the human body and their impact on our health: visceral and subcutaneous.

In order to find the reason behind our weight gain and the best possible solution, it’s important to distinguish between these two.

Therefore I’ve conducted in-depth research, consulted with our resident dietitian and compiled our data below so you can have a better grasp on this topic.

Let’s dive right in.

Quick Summary

  • Subcutaneous fat can be defined as jiggly body fat that is easy to spot under the skin.
  • Regulating temperatures, storing energy, producing hormones, and protecting the muscles are some of the roles of subcutaneous fat.
  • Some health hazards of storing too much subcutaneous fat include kidney disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, heart disease, and sleep apnea.

What Is Subcutaneous Fat?

person squeezing arm fat

Subcutaneous fat is jiggly body fat that's easy to spot since it is right under the skin [1].

It's the kind that you can pinch with your fingers.

Storing some subcutaneous fat is healthy and vital since it can protect us from diseases.

However, if it's in excess, it can lead to health complications and increase the likelihood of storing visceral fat, which is more dangerous since it's wrapped around vital organs [2].

Maintaining a healthy balance between subcutaneous and visceral fat requires physical activity, a balanced diet, and a healthy lifestyle.

The Roles of Subcutaneous Fat

At first, subcutaneous fat may seem like a waste of space. But unlike visceral fat, it serves a vital role in our bodies.

The subcutaneous layer does not consist only of fat. It also includes the connective tissue. The fat cells present in the subcutaneous layer are connected through elastin and proteoglycans to retain the elasticity and firmness of the skin [3].

Some of the essential roles of subcutaneous fat include [4]:

  • Energy Storing - That’s how the body stores energy to support an active lifestyle.
  • Protecting The Muscles And Bones - Especially from injuries caused by potential impacts.
  • Regulating Temperature - By insulating the body
  • Producing Hormones - It produces and stores estrogen, as well as leptin (satiety hormone)

Dangers Of Storing Too Much Subcutaneous Fat

man in a deep sleep and a person in pain

The dangers of storing large amounts of subcutaneous fat are not just cosmetic. It can lead to serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke [5].

That said, it is still considered far less dangerous than visceral fat, which is mainly stored as abdominal fat or belly fat.

Excess visceral fat can lead to many metabolic issues, while subcutaneous variety, though not as severe in that compartment, can contribute to mechanical issues such as joint problems.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that people who accumulate more than 33% of their body weight in their midsection have a higher risk for obesity-related diseases like insulin resistance than those who store less fat around the middle [6].

The health problems associated with storing excess subcutaneous fat include [7]:

  • High Blood Pressure And Weakened Blood Vessels
  • Heart Disease And Stroke
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Kidney Disease
  • Certain Types Of Cancer
  • Sleep Apnea

How To Tell If You Have Too Much Subcutaneous Fat

woman using tape measure on body

The methods of measuring subcutaneous fat include: 

1. Body Mass Index (BMI)

The easiest method of measuring subcutaneous fat is simply by calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI), which provides a ratio of your weight to your height [8].

  • Average Weight: BMI of 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight: BMI of 25 to 29.9
  • Obesity: BMI of 30 or higher

This measurement still includes visceral fat as well, but in most people, it represents a smaller percentage of total fat in the body.

On the other hand, subcutaneous fat plays a huge role in body fat. It is the layer of fat located just beneath the skin, and its measurement can be a helpful indicator of your body composition.

While subcutaneous fat is insulation and energy storage, excessive amounts can lead to health risks. Monitoring your subcutaneous fat levels through regular body fat assessments can help you track your progress and make necessary adjustments to maintain a healthy weight.

2. The Old School Way - By Waist Size

According to studies, men with a waist size over 40 inches and women with over 35 inches could have an increased risk of developing obesity-related diseases [9].

How to measure your waistline: 

  1. From the top of your hip bone, bring the tape measure all the way around your body, level with your belly button.
  2. The tape doesn’t have to be too tight but should be straight, even at the back. Don't hold your breath while measuring.
  3. Exhale and check the number on the tape measure.

Related Articles:

How to Lose And Control Subcutaneous Fat Levels

man using kettlebell and another holding up a drink

While both kinds of fat contribute to the overall belly fat, the subcutaneous part can be hard to target because it doesn't respond to dieting as well as the visceral fat . Some of the best practices that can increase subcutaneous fat loss include:

Increasing Your Protein Intake

Protein is vital for muscle growth and repair and necessary for a healthy metabolism. It can also help you feel fuller and more satisfied after eating [10].

While all sources of protein contribute to increasing your muscle mass, it's important to note that not all protein sources are created equal.

You should aim to consume high-quality proteins like organic eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and low-sugar dairy products.

There are also protein powders. You can check our article about the best protein powder. We have spent hours on research and testing to find the best option.

Drinking More Water

man chugging a bottle of water

Studies show that drinking enough water is essential for weight loss [11].

The recommended amount of water intake for adults is about 12 cups a day, depending on gender and height [12].

 If you are not sure how much water you need to drink, try this method:

Take your weight in pounds and divide that by 2.

That will give you the number of ounces you should drink every day. For example, if your weight is 130 pounds, then your water intake would be 65 ounces a day (130/2=65).

Take your height in inches and divide it by 12. It will tell you the number of cups to drink every day.

For example, if you are 68 inches tall, then you should drink eight cups a day.

Related Article: Best Weight Loss Drinks

 "Thirst, which is triggered by mild dehydration, is often mistaken for hunger by the brain. You may be able to decrease appetite by drinking water if you are, in fact, low in water, not calories."

- Melina Jampolis, Certified Physician Nutrition Specialist 

Combining Fasting With HIIT

HIIT workout for weight loss is an exercise routine that involves alternating between periods of high-intensity activity and low-intensity activity. Do it in a fasted state, and the results will be even more impressive.

The British Journal of Nutrition in 2016 suggests that aerobic exercise performed in the fasted state induces higher fat oxidation than exercise performed after meals [13].

Some of the benefits of fasted HIIT workouts are:

  • Increased Fat Loss
  • Improved Insulin Sensitivity
  • Reduced Inflammation
  • Improved Blood Sugar Regulation


Is Visceral or Subcutaneous Fat Worse?

Visceral fat is considered more dangerous than subcutaneous fat. Both types of fat can create health problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But visceral fat has been linked to a higher risk for coronary heart disease and stroke [14].

Which Part of Body Fat Burns First?

The fat that burns first is the fat that you have stored around your organs. This is because it is the most easily accessible for your body to use as an energy source.

Final Thoughts

Trying to lose weight in specific areas of your body usually isn't effective.

The best way to shed subcutaneous fat is by adopting a whole-body wellness routine that includes regular exercise, occasional fasting and a healthy diet.

Usually, this approach will yield the best long-term results, but if you need some help getting there faster, you can always use some stimulant-free fat burners to improve your metabolism and energy expenditure without taking a toll on your health.


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