The Skinny on Fat: Fat Location Can Affect Diabetes

If you’re like most people, you probably think fat is fat.  But scientists know there is more than one kind of fat, and having a higher percentage of the right kind can lower your risk of diabetes and other health conditions.

Despite its bad reputation, fat serves two recognized and useful purposes in the body.  Fat is the body’s way of storing energy.  If you are low on energy and get hungry but don’t eat, your body can pull the energy it needs from your stores of fat. Fat also stores hormones and releases them when the brain asks for them.

White fat is the type of fat that is mainly responsible for both of these functions.  But white fat also makes up the majority of the fat cells in the body, which means white fat is also the problem for people who are overweight.  When the body has too many white fat cells, the muscles and liver can become desensitized to the hormone insulin.  Insulin acts like a key to open up cells so they can pull sugar out of the blood as an energy source.  When the cells become desensitized to insulin, excess sugar accumulates in the blood, leading to diabetes.

The second type of fat, known as brown fat, is believed to be more like muscle tissue than white fat cells. When stimulated, brown fat can burn white fat, resulting in weight loss and reduced overall fat in the body. Brown fat is known to help keep the body warm, and is more plentiful in children than in adults.  The overall ratio of brown to white fat is higher in lean people, but that percentage is still very low. Aaron Cypess, MD, PhD from Harvard Medical School says, “A 150-pound person might have 20 or 30 pounds of fat. They are only going to have 2 or 3 ounces of brown fat.”

Where fat is located on the body can also be an important consideration.   Fat located just under the skin is known as subcutaneous fat.  In some locations, such as on the hips or thighs, this type of fat is believed to create lower risks of serious health conditions than visceral fat.  Visceral fat is fat located deep inside the body.  It can wrap around inner organs and is believed to be the type of fat that is most likely to lead to insulin resistance.  In addition to potentially causing diabetes, visceral fat produces hormones that can cause high blood pressure, and lead to bad cholesterol levels.  This can cause increased risks of other serious conditions including heart disease, stroke, and breast or colorectal cancer.

Belly fat, sometimes called a beer belly, is a combination of visceral and subcutaneous fat that collects around the center of the body.   Having a large waist measurement is a good sign that you have too much belly fat, which can lead to premature death.  Researchers say a woman’s waist should be less than 35 inches and a man’s less than 40 inches to reduce risks of serious health conditions including diabetes.

If you are overweight, obese, or have a larger than optimum waist size, talk to your healthcare provider about ways you can lose weight and lower your risks of diabetes and other serious conditions.

Denise DeWitt is a freelance writer for



 Web MD. The Truth About Fat. Web. July 23, 2012. Different Types of Belly Fat. Wendy Stewart. Web. July 23, 2012.

Mayo Clinic. Belly fat in women: Taking—and keeping—it off. Web. July 23, 2012.


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 9 Everyday Tips to Burn Belly Fat

 Diabetes in the Elderly: The Power of the Mitochondria

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