Four types of fat are stored in the body. Find out what causes it – and how to get rid of it

 (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
(PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

Is losing weight one of your new year’s resolutions? Tired of seeing fat around your tummy, bust, arms, butt or thighs? We asked a few experts to delve into the four types of fat our bodies store and tell us more about the causes – and how to shift the stubborn kilos. Fat is largely due to poor habits and lack of exercise, but there are other culprits too – genetics, stress, puberty, hormone levels and ageing all play a role in where and how your body stores fat.


Visceral fat occurs within the abdominal cavity that surrounds important organs, registered dietician Aimee Robson explains.

What causes it?

Healthy levels of visceral fat help protect the organs and play a vital role in keeping the endocrine system in tip-top shape. "The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones to regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and mood," personal trainer and gym owner Harold Jansen says.

But too much can be fatal. “When in excess, visceral fat is harmful because its blood flow drains into the liver via the portal vein,” explains Cape Town doctor Nerina Wilkinson. In other words, all the toxins and fatty acids are swept up by the blood and dumped into the liver.

"Visceral fat pumps out immune system chemicals called cytokines. These chemicals can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by promoting insulin resistance and chronic inflammation," Wilkinson says. Visceral fat usually forms due to a lack of exercise, a bad diet and excessive alcohol consumption. “This fat can also be associated with high levels of cortisol, which is often caused by stress,” Wilkinson says.

Getting rid of it

Visceral fat can’t be surgically removed. "A person with a high level of visceral fat should follow a healthy diet and exercise routine to decrease their risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes," Robson says.

 (PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images)


"Breast fat is subcutaneous fat, the type that sits right under the skin," explains Dr Wilkinson. "Subcutaneous fat is healthier than metabolically active visceral fat that sits deep in the belly and promotes inflammation and risk of disease."

What causes it?

This type of fat is largely caused by your genetic makeup. Because a woman’s chest consists mostly of fatty tissue, the larger her bust, the more fat she carries in her chest. Ducts and lobules – other types of tissue found in the breasts – are glandular and necessary for breastfeeding.

"The ratio of fat to duct and lobule tissue in your breasts is genetic," Wilkinson elaborates. "Women who naturally have large breasts are genetically inclined to carry a greater amount of fat in their chest, just like other women who carry more fat in their hips or thighs. You can’t tell what the ratio is without a mammogram or other imaging."

Getting rid of it

If you’re overweight, adjusting your diet can help you lose weight in your chest area. Breast fat also swells and shrinks when you gain or lose weight. In some cases women choose to go under the knife and have their breasts surgically reduced, but this is an expensive procedure.

Medical aids usually pay a portion only if it can be medically proven that the breast size has a chronic effect on general health.

Bottom and thighs 

This is referred to as lower body fat and, while we may not like it, it’s better to store our excess weight in the bottom and thighs than deep in the belly, Dr Wilkinson says. This fat is stored just below the skin and has some advantages, a research team at Oxford University in Britain found. Scientists discovered that hip fat absorbs fatty acids and contains an anti-inflammatory agent that stops arteries from clogging.

What causes it?

As kids, boys and girls have about the same amount of fat distributed evenly. But during puberty, girls gain fat at a much faster rate and the bulk of it is stored in the hips, thighs and bottom. After the teen years new fat cells usually don’t develop in the body, Dr Wilkinson says – the existing cells simply expand as they store the excess kilojoules you consume.

"Though subcutaneous fat is the preferred fat to have, having too much lower body fat can place you in an unhealthy weight category and you might then be at risk of health problems," gym owner Harold Jansen warns.

Getting rid of it

For women, fat in this area is the hardest to lose, Wilkinson says. "A strict exercise regime and healthy eating plan are most important to control excessive fat distribution in the lower body. Strength training is important to help reduce the high levels of oestrogen which is associated with this fat distribution."

Upper arms 

Fat in the triceps may indicate excess insulin or, in men, low testosterone levels, Dr Wilkinson says.

What causes it?

Genetics and ageing are largely to blame. As we age, our muscles tend to weaken which contributes to flabby skin under the arms.

Getting rid of it

"The best way to lose arm fat is through an all inclusive weight programme," gym owner Harold Jansen says. He recommends a low-kilojoule diet and frequent compound exercises that involve multiple muscle groups at the same time. “Building muscle through weightlifting can increase testosterone levels," Dr Wilkinson adds

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