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How to Lose Subcutaneous Fat

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

decreasing subcutaneous pounds

Story at-a-glance -

  • Subcutaneous fat is the kind of excess weight that jiggles just under your skin; incorporating a diet high in healthy fat, high-intensity exercise and timing your food intake to optimize metabolism are simple strategies to help you lose subcutaneous fat
  • A second location fat may be found is wrapped around your internal organs; this visceral fat is metabolically active and releases hormones that increase insulin resistance and negatively impact your ability to lose weight, and increase your risk of stroke, heart attack and Type 2 diabetes
  • Lifestyle and genetic factors impact how much and where subcutaneous fat may develop. Smoking and drinking alcohol are independently associated with visceral fat, while being sedentary, having little muscle mass and being insulin resistant are associated with subcutaneous and visceral fat
  • Your mental health matters when trying to lose weight since chronic stress increases the release of cortisol, a hormone that undermines weight loss with prolonged exposure; seek out stress reducing strategies and consider Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)

If you need to lose weight to reach your health goals, it's crucial to understand you cannot out-exercise your mouth.1 However, while diet is far more important than exercise, physical movement is the leverage you'll use to optimize your health and fitness.

For instance, exercise has been proven to be as effective, or more, than many drug treatments for common health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and depression.

One of the most basic health principles is to eat a diet of whole, nutritious foods, focusing on feeding your body the right nutrients rather than stuffing it with empty "junk" calories. This is key for living a long and healthy life.

Believe it or not, many who are overweight are actually malnourished. However, if you're obese and overwhelmed by the number of pounds you need to lose to get healthy, be encouraged by research demonstrating even small amounts of weight loss can yield significant health benefits.2

If you're trying to lose weight, it may feel as if the pounds you lose are all the same. However, if not done correctly you might lose more muscle than fat — and there are two different types of fat on your body, subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.

The good news is weight loss can be achieved by virtually everyone, once you understand a few core concepts. A successful program can be broken down into three easy-to-remember components:3,4,5

  • Exercise effectively and get regular movement
  • Eat real food6
  • Time your meals to optimize metabolic function

Not All Body Fat Is the Same

There are basically two places your body lays down fat cells and two different types of fat. Although you may want to get rid of some of your fat, these cells are integral to your body's functions.7 To date we know fat has two main purposes — to store energy and release hormones controlling metabolism.

The two areas fat is commonly stored are directly under your skin and around the internal organs in your abdomen. Subcutaneous fat is found directly under your skin — the type you can "pinch" — and likely the type of fat you want to lose. Visceral fat is found in your abdomen, wrapped around your organs.

In terms of overall health, your subcutaneous fat over your arms, thighs and buttocks has less of a negative impact than fat found around your waistline. The problem with large abdomens is not only related to visceral fat deep in your abdomen, but may also be related to the subcutaneous fat over your belly.

There are two types of fat, brown fat and white fat, which are significantly different in their function and amount in your body. The main purpose of brown fat is to burn calories and generate heat. Studies have found those who are leaner have more brown fat than those who are heavier. Brown fat is commonly found in the neck and upper back,8 and children generally have more than adults.

Visceral and subcutaneous fat is white fat. While subcutaneous fat may be measured using skin calipers around your thighs, arms and buttocks, visceral fat is not visible to the naked eye and requires a CT scan for full analysis. Measuring a combination of the amount of body fat and fat-free mass, including bone, water, muscle, organs and tissues makes up your body composition.9

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Lifestyle Factors and Genetics Determine Subcutaneous Fat Distribution

It is likely subcutaneous fat, the kind that jiggles under your skin, is what you are aiming to lose, as it's the type most visible and immediately frustrating. While you can't change your genetic predisposition to carrying more weight in your lower body than your upper body, or vice versa, there are lifestyle factors affecting the likelihood you'll deposit more subcutaneous fat than your peers.

Factors increasing your risk of acquiring more fat include being sedentary, having little muscle mass and being insulin resistant or having metabolic syndrome.10 Subcutaneous fat accumulates slowly and is more challenging to reduce than visceral fat, which develops quickly but is also more easily released.11

In one study,12 developed to assess the relationship between lifestyle factors and the development of abdominal subcutaneous and visceral fat, researchers used data from the Framingham Heart Study participants. They found those who adhered to recommended diet guidelines had lower subcutaneous and visceral fat.

Data also showed those who were physically active had less fat in both locations. Smoking and high alcohol intake was associated with the development of high visceral fat volume but not subcutaneous fat.13

Another study,14 which also used data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers evaluated the association of upper body subcutaneous fat with greater cardio metabolic risk. After analyzing the results from over 2,300 participants who had a CT scan between 2008 and 2011, they found higher upper body subcutaneous fat was adversely associated with cardio metabolic risk factors.

Subcutaneous and Visceral Fat Are Related

As you aim to lose the fat, it's important to maintain your muscle mass as it reduces the risk you'll acquire more fat. While you may not want to pinch an inch, research is finding subcutaneous fat plays a protective role in your health, particularly in obese individuals who carry a lot of visceral fat.15 Some factors making it more difficult to lose fat include:16

  • Insulin resistance — Since visceral fat is associated with insulin resistance, it may make it more difficult to lose either subcutaneous or visceral fat.
  • Spot-reduction — Some make the mistake of trying to reduce fat in specific areas of the body, sometimes by doing a lot of abdominal exercises. While these exercises will increase muscle tone or mass, they do not burn off more fat over the top of the muscle.
  • Inflammation — Visceral fat increases the risk of cytokine release, increasing the inflammatory response in your body. Inflammation is associated with weight gain and may increase the amount of subcutaneous fat stored.

To shed subcutaneous fat it's important to recognize the interaction between visceral and subcutaneous fat, and to understand which fitness strategies counteract the negative effects of visceral fat. For greatest success, you'll want to pay attention to the foods you eat, your exercise habits and the timing of your meals.

In a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Obesity,17 researchers compared visceral and subcutaneous fat loss against different weight loss strategies. Eighty-nine studies were analyzed and publication bias was assessed in each study. 

The results showed subcutaneous fat loss was greater than visceral when measured in area, volume and weight when participants used diet and exercise, weight loss agents or bariatric surgery.

Of the three weight loss agents, none preferentially targeted visceral fat, but the data showed visceral fat loss was linked to subcutaneous loss. In other words, it appears the strategies you use to reduce your subcutaneous fat affects visceral fat loss. 

Start With What You Eat Each Day

The most effective long-term strategies for weight loss and weight maintenance are not using short-term fixes such as pills, but rather a combination of nutrition, exercise and meal timing.

A key principle to lasting and successful weight loss is to teach your body to burn fat instead of sugar and carbohydrates. One step is to replace nonvegetable carbohydrates with healthy fats. The only types of fats you should be limiting are man-made varieties, such as trans fats and processed vegetable oils.

The same is true for dairy products, as full-fat dairy is preferable to low-fat, particularly raw unpasteurized dairy. In one study,18 women who consumed at least one serving of full-fat dairy each day gained 30 percent less weight over a nine-year period than the women who ate only low-fat or no-fat dairy products.

Although dietary fat has been vilified, saturated fats are the building blocks for your cell membranes and a large number of hormones and hormone-like substances essential to your health and your metabolism.19 Fats slow absorption so you'll go longer without feeling hungry, and they act as carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins.

So, don't fall into the low-fat trap, but instead consume higher amounts of healthy saturated fats, such as avocado,20 wild-caught Alaskan salmon, butter, ghee, coconut oil and organic pastured eggs. Consider snacking on raw nuts and drinking green tea.

Green tea is arguably one of the healthiest beverages you can drink.21 It's been demonstrated to benefit your heart and brain and also boost your metabolism. As you are increasing healthy fats, limit your sugar intake. This is especially true of fructose found in processed foods and raw fruit. Limit your fructose to less than 25 grams per day and less than 15 grams if you have signs of insulin resistance.

Increase your fresh vegetables and seek to eat at least one-third of your food uncooked or raw. Avoid artificial sweeteners of all kinds and limit or eliminate all processed foods, replacing them with whole, ideally organic produce and organically raised, pastured meats and animal products.

For an in-depth discussion on exercise and movement, eating real food and timing your meals to optimize your metabolic function, see my previous article, "How to Eat Yourself Thin." Following the strategies in this article helps improve your weight loss efforts.

Choose the Best Type of Exercise

Although nutrition accounts for nearly 80 percent of the weight loss and health benefits you get from choosing a healthy lifestyle, exercise is the leveraging agent optimizing those benefits. In part, this happens by improving your mitochondrial health, forcing them to work more efficiently.

Contrary to popular belief, being slim is not a blanket assurance of good health. You can actually be of normal weight and still be metabolically dysfunctional, inching your way toward heart disease, diabetes or cancer with each passing day.

In a study22 of over 95 participants, researchers evaluated the effects of aerobic and resistance training on gaining visceral fat in the year following weight loss. The data showed as little as 80 minutes of aerobic or resistance training a week prevented regaining harmful visceral fat.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of the most efficient forms of exercise requiring the least amount of time. Nearly any type of exercise can be performed in a high-intensity format, including weight training.

Benefits include firming your skin and reducing wrinkles, improving muscle tone and helping to decrease body fat. You'll find more about HIIT training in my previous article, "The Best Exercise for Aging Muscles." Also make it a point to walk and stand more every day, staying more active throughout your working day.

Data clearly identifies sitting as an independent risk factor for chronic disease,23 including cardiovascular disease and heart attack. This increases your mortality risk from all causes, so standing and engaging in nonexercise movement as much as possible is just as important for optimal health and longevity as having a regular fitness regimen.

Mental Health Matters

Your mental and emotional health matters when you're trying to lose weight since chronic stress increases the release of cortisol. This hormone in small, short-lived bursts, is functional. However, prolonged exposure can undermine weight loss and trigger a number of other symptoms including acne, facial hair growth and irregular menstrual periods.

When cortisol is released it increases your drive to eat, making you hungry, which you may be tempted to satisfy with sugary and high carbohydrate foods. Poor sleep quality and sleep loss is one reason for experiencing stress24 associated with rising cortisol levels.

Researchers have discovered an underlying mechanism between stress and metabolism through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation. This leads to neuroendocrine dysregulation and an increase in glucose and insulin, which also increases your hunger.

In a study of 58 women,25 data demonstrated the impact stress has on health, even in the presence of healthy eating. Under low-stress situations, the women had higher markers of inflammation after eating an unhealthy meal but not after eating a healthy meal. However, when stressed, their inflammation levels were elevated regardless of which type of meal they ate.

Daily stressors are associated with changes in metabolic response that may trigger weight gain of almost 11 pounds a year. The take-home message is healthy foods may help improve your mood when you're stressed out, but most report overeating as a result of stress.26

If you don't address your stress daily, it can quickly snowball out of control and impact your mental and physical health, as well as your ability to be productive and enjoy life. There are several ways to do this and you may have several methods you currently use.

Energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, is an option to help reprogram your body's reaction to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life and reduce your chances of experiencing adverse health effects.

Losing Visceral Fat Has Greater Impact on Your Health

Rachel Whitmer, Ph.D., research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California, has studied the links between fat and brain health. Whitmer analyzed the records of more than 6,500 members of Kaiser Permanente of Northern California over a 36-year period and found those who had the largest bellies had a higher risk of dementia.27

The link remained even for people with excess belly fat but overall normal weight. She theorizes substances released by belly fat, such as leptin, may have an adverse effect on the brain. A study28 published in the Annals of Neurology also found an association between visceral fat and lower total brain volume in a sample of 733 community-based participants.

Visceral fat also plays a significant role in driving your risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke as it is thought to play a large role in insulin resistance. A combination of intermittent fasting with HIIT virtually forces your body to burn off excess body fat.

Common mistakes that make shedding belly fat more difficult include a lack of exercise, magnesium deficiency, stress and consumption of diet soda, beer and alcohol. Each of these factors plays a role in how your body burns visceral fat. Read more in my previous article, "Winning Strategies to Help You Shed Unwanted Belly Fat."