This Explains So Much: Turns Out We All Have 4 Different Types of Fat

women in colorful workout clothes

Girlfriend Collective

Everyone has a different body shape, and there's no reason to change it. That being said, there's also no shame in wanting to tone various parts of your body. Unfortunately, fat loss is not an easy feat and there are a lot of moving parts involved. "Along with diet, exercise, and any cosmetic treatments, there are managing motivation levels, building your willpower muscles, and overcoming hormonal imbalances and genetic predispositions, to name a few," says Mitchell Chasin, MD, a cosmetic physician and the founder and medical director of Reflections Center for Skin and Body in New Jersey.

"One of the topics we don't see enough conversation about is the different types of fat, and how your strategies for fat loss need to vary based on which kind of fat you're targeting," Chasin adds. We've got you covered! Below, we delve a little deeper into each type of fat and the best ways to keep them off, according to experts—for good.

types of body fat illustration

illustration by Dion Mills

Fluffy Fat

"Fluffy fat is soft and jiggles easily. Female hormones tell our bodies to accumulate this kind of subcutaneous [below the skin, above the muscle] fat much more readily than men, and it's typically found on women's stomachs, hips, thighs, and/or backs of the arms," says Chasin.

"Subcutaneous fat is responsible for insulation/warmth, cushioning/protection, and is an energy reserve," adds Brittney Parris, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Culina Health.

What Is Subcutaneous Fat?

Subcutaneous fat is the fat just beneath your skin. Its purpose is to protect your muscles and bones, as well as insulate your body and store energy. Subcutaneous fat can be fibrous or more soft to the touch.

This fat is necessary to have, but too much of it can bring health complications.

If you're looking for a surgical option…

"The best choice for a toned look, sans fluffy fat, is laser liposuction," recommends Chasin. "During laser liposuction, a laser liquefies the fat before it's suctioned out, making it easy to remove that layer of squishy fat and reveal your hard-won muscles."

Take note: Research shows that fat will return if lifestyle changes (like diet and exercise) are not made. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery says that even though fat cells aren't formed again at your lipo location, the remaining fat cells in that area could expand or excess fat will be stored elsewhere.

If you're looking for a nonsurgical option…

"SculpSure, a noninvasive laser treatment, does an excellent job of permanently removing fluffy fat," Chasin says. "SculpSure works by heating fat cells just beyond their limit, causing them to die and be permanently removed by the body's natural metabolism."

The American Board of Cosmetic Surgery states that SculpSure is cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used on the abdomen and flanks (side of your abs), but it can be used on other areas. Typically, results are noticeable after about six weeks, with end results arriving after 12 weeks.

If you're looking for a targeted workout…

"While you can do all the sit-ups you want, the best bet to banish this fat is to do high-intensity interval training—I love The Fhitting Room!—to burn this subcutaneous fat," says Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, a nationally recognized nutrition expert and founder of B Nutritious. Alpert adds that diet is key too. "Since this fat is associated with hormones, the best way to get rid of it is to cut down on sugar consumption. Specifically, liquid sugar in the form of soda, juice, and alcohol."

"When it comes to exercise, remember that subcutaneous fat covers the muscle," adds Parris. "As an example, abs are muscle. Spot exercises like crunches/sit-ups can tone and define the abdominal muscle, but in order to see the definition of these muscles, you’ll need to reduce subcutaneous fat in the spot area first. In short, a combination of aerobic and strength training is best."

Fibrous Fat

Fibrous fat is the tougher version of subcutaneous fat and often forms set-in rolls. You can still pinch fibrous fat, but it's tougher and doesn't squish the way fluffy fat does. "Fat is an active tissue and secretes hormones and other molecules, such as proteins, fibers, and collagen," says Parris. "Fibrous fat is the result of subcutaneous fat secreting fibers, which often happens during weight gain and in the context of obesity."

Sometimes fluffy fat becomes fibrous due to the constant pressure of ill-fitting clothes, but it can be fibrous before the fat accumulated. Fibrous fat is less easily removed than fluffy fat because the fibers that form around and between those fat cells hold it in place and make it harder for your body to use that fat for energy. So it's typically the last fat that would get burned by your body's natural processes.

If you're looking for a surgical option…

As with fluffy fat, "laser liposuction offers the easiest and most complete removal of this type of fat," Chasin says, "and because the laser will release those fibrous bands, any fat you do accumulate in the same place afterward would likely be fluffy fat, which is easier to lose naturally."

You may wind up being more satisfied with laser liposuction than with other traditional methods. A 2018 study found that, compared with traditional liposuction, laser liposuction resulted in greater fat reduction, better skin retraction, and greater patient satisfaction.

Remember that making healthy changes to diet and lifestyle needs to be a priority too. Otherwise, the fat may simply come back.

If you're looking for a nonsurgical option…

"CoolSculpting works best for this type of fat," says Chasin. "Because fibrous fat tends to accumulate in rolls, CoolSculpting's unique contour applicator allows us to attack the roll of fat from all angles, for an effective treatment."

This procedure is not only safe, noninvasive, and comes with minimal side effects, but it's also effective. A 2019 study found that fat thickness was reduced by 20 percent after one treatment of cryolipolysis (CoolSculpting is a version of this).

If you're looking for a targeted workout…

"Any type of weight loss will help in this department, but this is where building muscle while losing fat is the best for a solution," suggests Alpert. "This, sadly, is also the type of fat that will often need additional help." To get the ball rolling, focus on amping up your current workout routine.

Don't give up if you aren't seeing results. "Unfortunately, research has shown that fibrous fat can be more resistant to weight reduction, especially in the context of obesity and inflammation," says Parris. "The good news is weight loss has been shown to reduce the fibers/inflammatory markers that fibrous fat cells produce."

Cellulite

Did you know that 80 to 90 percent of women have cellulite? Remember that the next time you feel bad about yours. According to Chasin, cellulite happens when fat gets trapped in the bottom layers of the skin, which becomes worse as we age and skin begins to thin. It's important to note that the appearance of your cellulite has more to do with hormones and genetics than age.

If you're looking for a surgical option…

"Cellulaze is a revolutionary treatment that addresses all three causes of cellulite: fat within the skin, fibrous bands that create dimples, and thinned skin," Chasin says. "Using a laser to thicken and tighten the skin, release the fibers that pull in deep dimples, and melting fat bulges trapped in the skin, this treatment creates lasting smoothness."

According to clinical research, this procedure has shown significant improvements in both skin thickness and elasticity for at least one year. It also has minimal side effects and high satisfaction rates.

If you're looking for a nonsurgical option…

You can achieve a reduction in cellulite using a combination of noninvasive procedures as well. Chasin's favorite is SculpSure and Exilis. "SculpSure is a noninvasive fat-melting laser that reduces fat one to three centimeters below the skin's surface, [which is] perfect for fat trapped in the skin's lower layers," he says. "Exilis is a radiofrequency treatment that tightens and tones skin for a smoother appearance."

These radiofrequency options can help boost your skin's collagen content, which is known to decrease with age. Plus, it's beneficial for keeping skin firm and supple. According to a 2019 scientific review in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology, two weekly treatments of a radiofrequency device for six weeks resulted in a 25 percent improvement of cellulite in over 50 percent of the subjects.

If you're looking for a targeted workout…

"Cellulite is a tough one," says Alpert. "Sometimes losing weight can be beneficial, but other times it can almost make it appear worse." Alpert recommends starting with some diet changes. "For my clients complaining about cellulite, I suggest they go on a low-sugar diet, as excess sugar in the body can compromise the skin's structural support system, worsening the appearance of cellulite," she states. "I also recommend a diet high in vitamin C to promote the production of collagen. (I love Reserveage Collagen Replenish, $20.) Muscle-building workouts with moderate weights are great too."

At this time, it's not known if there is a specific type of exercise, duration, intensity, or frequency that achieves the best cellulite-reduction results. Adding exercise to your routine in general, regardless of type, can show benefits, since it increases blood flow to adipose tissue, resulting in less severe cellulite.

Firm Fat

Firm fat (also known as visceral fat) is different from the three other types, as it lives below the muscles, surrounding the internal organs in your abdomen. Since it's located behind a thick muscle wall, this type of fat feels firm, not soft or pinchable.

What Is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat, or "deep" fat, is also referred to as intra-abdominal fat because it is located beneath the abdominal wall. It can also be found in the spaces surrounding the vital organs, such as the liver and intestines.

"Visceral fat is a problem that has to be tackled with lifestyle changes alone because there aren't currently any tools in the cosmetic surgeon's arsenal to help reduce this kind of fat," Chasin says. However, the good news is that this kind of fat responds faster than the other types to lifestyle changes. Here are few ways you can speed up your firm-fat loss.

Get more sleep

The CDC recommends that adults get seven or more hours of sleep each night, and surprisingly getting less than that can result in unwanted fat gain. A 2019 study linked short sleep duration and insomnia with increased visceral-fat obesity. People who slept for at least seven hours each night had the lowest rate of visceral-fat obesity.

If you have trouble sleeping, the CDC recommends removing electronic devices from the bedroom, avoiding large meals and caffeine before bed, and staying physically active during the day to see improvements.

Combine exercise and diet change to make a bigger impact

"Combining diet and exercise helps with your efforts exponentially when it comes to visceral body fat. Low-carb diets have been shown to be particularly effective, but you'll want to talk to your doctor before you take on a new fitness routine," Chasin recommends. Alpert agrees: "Add green tea to your diet, as the antioxidants are known to promote belly fat loss."

A 2020 study examined the effectiveness of exercise on reducing accumulated fat. The results showed that participating in moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise four times per week, 50 minutes per session, for 22 weeks had a positive effect on the reduction of weight as well as the accumulation of subcutaneous and visceral fat.

Stick with it

Don't give up once you start! "For every 10 percent of overall weight loss, you lose 30 percent of your visceral fat," explains Chasin. "So sticking with a program can pay off quickly."

It can be tough to start and continue a weight loss journey alone. So consider looping in a support system. Research shows that social support is beneficial to keeping up the hard work. Other factors that can help are planning ahead, staying aware and mindful of food choices, ramping up your nutrition education, and building self-motivation by celebrating each success or keeping a journal of the benefits you're noticing.

Article Sources
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