Are Some Types Of Body Fat Healthier Than Others?

According to Harvard Health Publishing, the brain and body need healthy fats to operate. Good fat protects our bodies from trauma, promotes blood clotting, and helps with muscle movement. Fats provide energy and help the body absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Body fat is not inherently bad. However, excess amounts of some kinds of fat can lead to illness and disease (per Frontiers). But are some types of body fat healthier than others?

White fat makes up the majority of body fat (via Healthline). White fat cells store energy. White fat can be stored beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) or around internal organs (visceral fat). Subcutaneous fat is healthy in average amounts, but too much can cause hormonal imbalance.

When white fat builds up around the abdomen, that is called visceral fat. Harvard Health Publishing warns that visceral fat poses a greater health risk than subcutaneous fat. Specifically, it can increase the risk of breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, gallbladder issues, cardiovascular disease, and other medical conditions. Exercise and a healthy diet can help prevent or reduce visceral fat and decrease your chances of developing health issues and metabolic disturbances related to obesity.

But some other kinds of body fat actually burn calories. A 2012 study published in Cell suggests these fats could hold the key to new ways of combatting obesity and diabetes.

Some body fat can burn calories

According to the Mayo Clinic, brown fat is activated by cool temperatures. It turns up body heat to prevent hypothermia under cold conditions. Brown fat uses mitochondria to produce heat by burning calories. 

Brown fat between the shoulder blades helps infants stay warm until they develop a shiver response to cold (via WebMD). It dissipates with age, but some brown fat deposits remain around the neck and spine in adults. More research is needed to discover whether brown fat can help shed extra pounds. However, Healthline suggests taking cold showers and exercising could promote the creation of new brown fat.

Researchers have discovered another type of fat that is neither white nor brown. The 2012 study in Cell says beige fat cells can burn calories like brown fat, but they are genetically different. Beige cells are specifically sensitive to the newly discovered hormone irisin, a hormone released by muscles in response to exercise (per Science Direct). According to Livestrong, beige fat is thought to be associated with a healthy weight, although more research is needed.

Authors of the Cell study write, "The therapeutic potential of both kinds of brown fat cells is clear, as genetic manipulations in mice that create more brown or beige fat have strong anti-obesity and anti-diabetic actions" (per Harvard Medical School). With research, it's possible we could use these types of fat to combat obesity in humans.