What is Subcutaneous Fat?

Woman jogging

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Subcutaneous fat is part of the innermost layer of the skin along with connective tissues. This innermost layer of the skin is also known as the hypodermis, and it helps regulate body temperature and contains blood vessels and nerves.

Subcutaneous fat is one of two types of adipose (fat) tissue, the other being visceral fat. How much subcutaneous fat each person has is unique to their individual genetic makeup.

While subcutaneous fat has several essential roles in the body, too much can be damaging to your health. Keeping your fat levels in check is possible with a nutrient-dense, calorie-balanced diet and adequate exercise.

Subcutaneous Fat in the Body

Subcutaneous fat in the body is located under the skin and above the muscle. Men and women have different typical distributions of subcutaneous fat, with women having more on their hips and thighs. About 90% of body fat is subcutaneous for most individuals.

How much subcutaneous fat you have depends on your genetics and lifestyle. Diet and exercise play an essential role in controlling the amount of subcutaneous fat you carry.

The Roles of Subcutaneous Fat

Subcutaneous fat plays a few essential roles in the body.

  • Energy Store: It stores energy in the form of lipids for later use and protects your muscles from damage caused by potential impacts. The nerves and blood vessels use this deep fat layer for transport between your muscles and other skin layers.
  • Part of Skin Structure: Additionally, as part of the innermost skin layer (hypodermis), this fat layer connects the middle skin layer (epidermis) to your muscles and bones.
  • May Reduce Inflammation: Research has shown that subcutaneous fat may play a protective role in the body concerning the endocrine system and inflammation.
  • Helps to Produce Hormones: Adipose tissue produces leptin—which helps control feelings of hunger and fullness—and estrogen.

However, there are risks of carrying too much subcutaneous fat and visceral fat, including insulin resistance, hepatic steatosis, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension.

What Causes Excess Subcutaneous Fat?

Everyone is born with subcutaneous fat. How much subcutaneous fat you have depends on several factors, such as:

  • Genetics: Your genetics play a role in determining where and how much subcutaneous fat you store on specific areas of the body. Exactly how much genetics play a role is still being researched. 
  • Activity Levels: Being highly sedentary is correlated with more subcutaneous fat storage, namely due to excess calories being stored instead of used for physical activity.
  • Nutrition: Consuming more calories than you need to fuel your daily activity level can lead to extra subcutaneous fat. Additionally, highly processed foods with large amounts of sugar and salt can potentially cause more abdominal obesity, including subcutaneous fat.
  • Insulin Resistance or Diabetes: Metabolic disorders can cause excess fat storage and make it more challenging to lose fat.
  • Aging: Aging, especially in women, can lead to a decrease in subcutaneous fat but an increase in visceral fat.
  • Hormonal Status: Excess cortisol, a stress hormone, can lead to subcutaneous fat storage. The hormone leptin controls how hungry you feel and can influence weight gain.

Healthy Levels of Subcutaneous Fat

You can get a reasonable estimate of whether or not you have a healthy level of subcutaneous fat by using a few different measuring techniques:

  • DeXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) is performed by a clinician.
  • Hydrostatic weighing is performed underwater in a lab.
  • BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis) is available on many home scales that provide weight, body fat percent, and other numbers. This may not be the most accurate.
  • Skin calipers pinch adipose tissue on certain areas of your body to measure your body fat levels. This is best done by a skilled practitioner for the most accurate results.

You can also measure your waist. A waist circumference over 35 inches in women and more than 40 inches in men is considered high and is associated with several health issues, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It's important to note that in some cases the waist circumference recommendation may need to be lower. A 2019 study done on 209 Chinese men and 318 Chinese women found that increased insulin resistance is observed when waist circumferences are greater than 29 inches for women and 32.5 inches for men.

Measuring your waist compared to your hips (waist-to-hip ratio) can also provide a clearer picture of your health in relation to your body shape and fat distribution. Those who carry more fat on their abdomens—such as an apple-shape—have higher risks of obesity-related diseases.

How to Control Subcutaneous Fat Levels

The best way to control subcutaneous fat levels in the body for health is to practice ideal lifestyle habits such as getting plenty of activity and eating a nutritious, balanced diet. If you or a health care provider has determined that you should lower your level of fat, you will need to assess your lifestyle habits, including eating patterns, sleep, stress levels, and physical activity.

The USDA recommends at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or a combination of the two. Performing full-body strength training two to three times a week is also recommended. Additional exercise may be required for weight loss, but individual needs vary.

Sticking to a regular exercise routine will certainly go a long way towards maintaining a healthy body fat percentage. While lifestyle habits such as consistent physical activity and adequate sleep are important for maintaining healthy fat levels, a calorie deficit may be necessary for fat loss to occur in some individuals.

Getting enough sleep and managing stress levels is also essential for healthy body weight and body fat levels.

Subcutaneous Vs. Visceral Fat

Visceral adipose tissue is another type of fat that exists around your organs. This type of fat is considered more dangerous than subcutaneous fat in terms of increased health risks from having too much.

Both types of body fat are linked to a higher risk of cardiometabolic disease. Still, visceral fat is shown by research to be more associated with metabolic risk factors, insulin resistance, inflammation, and overall mortality.

You can lose excess visceral fat the same way you'd lose subcutaneous fat: with a healthy diet, exercise, and controlled stress levels.

A Word From Verywell

Subcutaneous fat is a type of fat that the body requires for several reasons, including temperature regulation and hormone production. However, too much subcutaneous fat, especially on the abdomen, can lead to health risks. Keeping your body fat levels at a healthy range through diet and exercise is key. Speak to a health care provider if you are concerned about your health or body fat levels.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.