Let’s talk about fat … I know, I know, you think fat is bad but is that always true? Do we really know our body fat?
There are actually different types of body fat and fat cells; some better for you than others. Knowing more about these distinct fat cells can help you minimize the negative effects of body fat and help promote the good.
Fat cells are stored in adipose, or fatty, tissue which has historically been associated with obesity, but Dr. Gianluca Iacobellis, endocrinologist and fat expert at the University of Miami Health System, says that it is not that simple. “Each type of fat has a different story to tell,” he says. “Recent evidence has clearly shown that adipose tissue is not a silent bystander, but rather it produces adipokines, which can either help or affect organs like the heart and liver.”
He adds that “all of this has a direct application to the real life and management of major diseases in humans.” And, that some fat cells are a “measurable target for current anti-diabetes and anti-obesity medications leading to unexpected beneficial effects.”
Breaking it down
There are three main types of fat – white adipose tissue (WAT) and brown adipose tissue (BAT) and also fat cells called beige fat, as only recently discovered. Then, depending on the fat is located in your body, we have subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT), visceral adipose tissue (VAT) and epicardial adipose tissue (EAT), and this distinction is not trivial, at all.
Let’s break down fat a little more:
- WAT: Most of our body fat depot is WAT. While we need some white fat for energy storage and other body functions, too much of it causes obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.
- BAT: When activated, brown fat could promote weight loss because it creates heat by burning white fat, according to Dr. Iacobellis. BAT is all that baby fat found in the neck and shoulders of infants. Because babies can’t shiver, BAT helps keep them warm. Unfortunately, humans lose most of their brown fat and replace it with white fat as they age.
- Beige fat: The reason this fat type is called beige is that it is thought to “brown” WAT. Specifically, it grows within white fat and burns calories similarly to brown fat. It is a new discovery and kind of promising type of fat cells.
Fat in your body
- SAT: This fat is called subcutaneous because it lies beneath your skin. You know the term “pinch an inch?” That inch is SAT. It is not good to have it in excess, but sometimes it is actually protective.
- VAT: Visceral fat is the worst for you. “VAT is the fat depot surrounding and infiltrating the internal organs and when excessive can become detrimental,” explains Dr. Iacobellis.
- EAT: Covering eighty percent of the heart, epicardial fat is needed for heart muscle function. However, excess EAT has been shown to be connected to metabolic and cardiovascular disease. It is for this reason that Dr. Iacobellis, who has studied this fat type closely, believes that “physicians can stratify (or classify) the risk of their patients of having type 2 diabetes or coronary artery diseases by measuring VAT and epicardial fat.”
Use fat to lose fat
In theory, brown and beige fat could be used for weight loss because it burns calories and white fat “under certain conditions.” According to a National Institutes of Health study published in 2015, those conditions are:
- Being “chronically” cold: regular and prolonged exposure to low temperatures kicks those beige and brown cells into high gear because your body is trying to keep you warm.
- Eating certain foods: some studies performed on mice indicate that olive oil and fish oil may cause brown cells to burn more calories. However, whether this could happen in humans is still uncertain
- Exercising: add activating brown and beige cells to the long list of exercise’s benefits. This is the most efficient way to use fat to lose fat.
Dr. Iacobellis says that “future research direction is to identify and then switch on genes making the good fat cells (BAT and beige) to promote consistent and sustainable weight loss and ultimately prevent type 2 diabetes.”