It’s no secret that having too much body fat could be bad for your health. You probably focus on how much you have, but another aspect worth paying attention to is fat distribution — or where you have it.

Turns out, there are certain places where having excess fat could be problematic. And there are other places where it might not be that big of a deal.

How can you tell the difference? Here’s what you should know about fat distribution and what it can tell you about your health. Plus, here’s how you can achieve a better balance.

1. Where your fat is located isn’t totally in your control — especially as you get older

You have plenty of say over your total amount of body fat. As for where that fat tends to show up? That can be a little harder to manage.

Most people tend to accumulate fat either in their midsection or in their hips and thighs. But your genes, sex, age, and hormones could affect how much fat you have and where it goes.

What determines fat allocation?

  • Your genes. Nearly 50 percent of fat distribution may be determined by genetics, estimates a 2017 study. If most of the people in your family have rounder bellies or fuller hips, there’s a good chance you’ll follow suit.
  • Your sex. Healthy body fat levels for males range from 6 to 24 percent, but for females, it’s between 14 and 31 percent, notes the American Council on Exercise. “And men tend to accumulate more fat around the midsection, while women gain it more in the hips and buttocks,” says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, associate clinical professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
  • Your age. Older adults tend to have higher levels of body fat overall, thanks to factors like a slowing metabolism and gradual loss of muscle tissue. And the extra fat is more likely to be visceral instead of subcutaneous.
  • Your hormone levels. Weight and hormones are commonly linked, even more so in your 40s. This is due to the natural decline of hormones like testosterone (in men) and estrogen (in women), explains Pamela Peeke, MD, a body fat expert and author of “Body for Life for Women.”

2. But there’s more than one type of body fat to pay attention to

Believe it or not, there are three. Not only does each one have a different function. They’re all located in different parts of your body.

Fat typeWhere
subcutaneous all over, but mostly around butt, hips, and thighs
visceralaround abs, but can’t be felt
brown shoulder and chest
 

Here’s a breakdown of what these fat types are:

  • Subcutaneous fat sits on top of your muscle, right underneath your skin. It’s the kind you can poke or pinch, often around your butt, hips, or thighs. This makes up about 90 percent of our fat stores.
  • Visceral fat sits deep inside the abdominal cavity. It surrounds vital organs like the liver, intestines, and heart. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you can’t touch or feel it. But it can pose serious health risks. (More on this later.)
  • Brown fat is a special type of fat that actually helps the body burn extra calories to stay warm. Babies have a lot of brown fat, but adults have small amounts too, mostly around the shoulder and chest areas. A small study involving five men found spending time in chilly temperatures — around 66°F (19°C) or cooler — can activate it and boost calorie burning.

3. Subcutaneous, the ‘pinchable’ kind, actually has some important benefits

Subcutaneous fat is basically stored energy. Small amounts of it can be more helpful than you think.

It pumps out hormones like leptin, which signal to the brain that you’re full and don’t need to keep eating. It also makes adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory hormone that plays a role in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

In other words? Resist that urge to judge your jiggle. It can be a good thing.

4. Too much visceral fat can be dangerous

Because it’s stored around your vital organs, visceral fat can make its way into your liver. From there, it’s turned into cholesterol, which travels into the bloodstream and clogs up arteries.

Visceral fat is also thought to signal the release of inflammatory chemicals and contribute to insulin resistance.

Both of these processes can wreak havoc on the body.

Excess visceral fat can increase risk of:

While it’s hard to recognize how much visceral fat you have, having too much is surprisingly common. Findings show that 44 percent of women and 42 percent of men have excess visceral fat. The most precise way to measure the amount in your body is with an MRI or CT scan.

Measuring visceral fat at home, at a glanceIf you’re a woman with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches or a man with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches, there’s a good chance you have too much visceral fat.

5. BMI isn’t always the best predictor of healthy body fat levels

You’re more likely to have too much visceral fat if your body mass index (BMI) falls in the overweight (25 to 29.9) or obese (30 or above) category.

But you shouldn’t rely on BMI alone to tell you whether your body fat falls in the healthy range, says Ayoob.

Research shows that 22 percent of men and 8 percent of women who are considered normal weight actually have too much visceral fat. (And are at risk for the health problems that can come with it.)

The opposite can also be true. Around 22 percent of men and 10 percent of women with obesity have levels of visceral fat that fall within the normal range.

The takeaway? It’s just as important to pay attention to the amount of fat around your midsection as the number on the scale. 

6. Your lifestyle factors can affect how much visceral fat builds up

Your body doesn’t have all the say over where your fat tends to live. Certain lifestyle factors also play a role.

Here are three common habits that cause visceral fat to build up:

  • Eating too much junk food. “These foods have the ability to be absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, triggering a spike in insulin, which acts as a fat deposit hormone,” says integrative weight loss specialist Luiza Petre, MD. Getting too much saturated fat seems to promote the buildup of visceral fat too.
  • Being sedentary. The more time you spend sitting, the greater your waist circumference is likely to be, findings suggest. So when Netflix says, “Are you still watching?” use that as a reminder to take a stroll.
  • Letting stress get out of control. Over time, chronic stress prompts the body to pack on excess visceral fat. “The largest concentration of receptors for the stress hormone cortisol can be found deep in visceral fat tissue,” Peeke explains.

7. Six ways to achieve healthier fat distribution

You might not have complete control over where your body prefers to store fat. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to keep excess fat from ending up in potentially harmful places, like deep in your belly.

6 tips for healthy fat distribution

  • Choose complex carbs and protein.
  • Eat healthy fats.
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day and increase the intensity.
  • Keep your stress in check.
  • Get six to seven hours of sleep every night.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  1. Choose complex carbs and protein over the sugary stuff. They digest at a slower rate, so your insulin levels stay steady instead of spiking and prompting your body to store extra belly fat, Petre says.
  2. Go for healthier dietary fats. Polyunsaturated fats like walnuts, salmon, and flax seeds are an especially good bet — especially when you swap them in for saturated fats. Findings suggest that polyunsaturated fats promote the growth of calorie-torching muscle tissue, while saturated fats seem to encourage excess fat storage.
  3. Exercise — and try to up the intensity. Get the most bang for your buck by breaking a sweat. Strength training helps increase muscle mass, which in turn reduces body fat, explains Petre. High-intensity intervals (like alternating sprinting with walking) are more effective for attacking visceral fat than moderate aerobic exercise, research shows.
  4. Try to keep your stress in check. Taming the tension keeps your system from constantly getting flooded with cortisol. That in turn can help keep excess fat from taking up home in your visceral tissue, Peeke says.
  5. Get enough sleep. In one six-year study, participants who normally slept for five hours showed a 32 percent increase in visceral fat. Those who logged six to seven hours only increased their visceral fat by 13 percent.
  6. Limit your booze intake. Flooding your system with excessive amounts of alcohol in one sitting means more of the calories could get stored as visceral fat. Heavier drinkers tend to have higher levels of belly fat as well, so stick to no more than one drink a day (for women) or two per day (for men). And above all, avoid binge drinking. That’s defined as four or more drinks in two hours.

Don’t try all these steps at once if it seems overwhelming. Enjoying the baby steps and building lifelong habits is more effective and healthier for yourself.

If anything, remember this key tip: Watch your portions overall. When you eat too much of any food — even healthy ones — the extra calories your body doesn’t need get stored as fat.


Marygrace Taylor is a health and wellness writer whose work has appeared in Parade, Prevention, Redbook, Glamour, Women’s Health, and others. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.