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Blog Health Essential Body Fat: Drawing The Line Between What’s Necessary And What Needs To Go

Essential Body Fat: Drawing The Line Between What’s Necessary And What Needs To Go

essential body fat

There are several fat types in human beings. Some can harm your health, while others are beneficial to your system. One type of fat found in your body is the essential body fat, which we will be focusing on in this article. Is it harmful or beneficial to your health? Let’s try to find out!

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Health experts agree that too much fat can be dangerous to your body. It can cause conditions such as dyslipidemia, hypertension, type II diabetes, and other diseases related to obesity. But is that the case with essential fats? Aren’t they necessary to our bodies, just like their name suggests? Here is everything you need to know about essential body fat for men and women.

What Is Essential Body Fat?

As the most aptly named type of fat, essential fat is required for good health. It plays a crucial part in regulating your body temperature, production of sexual hormones, vitamin absorption, among other benefits. Essential fat is the minimal amount of body fat required for normal physiological functions.

These are not visible as they are located deep inside the body (16).

What Does Essential Fat Mean In The Body?

If you have essential fats in your body, then this means that you will be able to conduct all the physiological functions such as absorbing oxygen and so forth.

Hence, they are a “good” type of fat, which means that you do not need to target them during weight loss.

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Where Is Essential Body Fat Located?

Essential fat is critical for your life, without it, you would probably be weak or dead. Hence, it is not surprising that they are located in the most important parts of your body. They include the following:

  • Brain
  • Nerves
  • Bone marrow
  • Membranes that protect your organs

Read More: 40% Body Fat: Are You a Jump Away From Obesity and What Should You Do?

Essential Fat Vs. Storage Fat Vs. Body Fat

Essential fats are needed for normal physiological processes in your body, just as mentioned above. 

On the other hand, storage fat is found in your adipose tissue, beneath your skin, and around some of your organs. It has the following main functions:

  • Insulating the body to retain heat
  • Provides energy during metabolism
  • Guards your body against physical trauma

Essential and storage fats are types of body fat. They are all found in your body (6).

What Is A Non-Essential Body Fat?

This is the fat that is not needed to perform vital functions of the body. This non-essential fat is stored under your skin and around organs if it is in excess. The main types of non-essential fats include the following:

  • White: This type of fat is located under your skin and around the organs in your body, buttocks, arms, thighs, and arms. The fat cells act as energy stored by the body for later use.
  • Brown fat: It is mostly found in babies. Some adults still retain it in small amounts in the shoulder and neck region.
  • Beige (brite): The Beige fat cells are found between brown and white fat cells. When you are stressed or cold, the body releases hormones and enzymes to convert white fat into beige.
  • Subcutaneous: It is stored under your skin. It is a combination of brown, white, and beige fat cells. It is dominant in our bodies. You can squeeze or pinch this fat on your belly, thighs, and buttocks.
  • Visceral: It is also known as belly fat. It is a white fat stored in your abdomen and around major organs such as the liver, pancreas, heart, intestines, and kidneys (9).
essential body fat percentage
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Why Is Body Fat Essential?

Having a healthy fat percentage provides the following general benefits:

  • Temperature regulation
  • Balanced sugar levels in your blood
  • Healthy metabolic rates
  • Good neurological functions
  • Adequate vitamin absorption and storage
  • Better reproductive system and health
  • Balanced hormone levels

Each fat type has the following functions:

  • White: Regulates hormones such as insulin, estrogen, leptin, growth hormone, and cortisol. They also store energy for later use.
  • Brown: Burns fatty acids to keep you warm (4).
  • Beige: Help burn fats rather than store them.
  • Essential fats: Plays a major role in hormone regulation, temperature regulation, and vitamin absorption.
  • Subcutaneous: Prevents the skin from becoming dry.
  • Visceral: Protects your important body organs from shock.

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essential body fat for men
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Essential Body Fat Percentage In The Body

The percentage of essential fats varies from one person to the other, depending on sex and age. Various theoretical values exist based on health, athlete, capacity, and so forth.

Females need 32% at the age of 8 to 11 years, and 42.4% at 60 to 70 years (15).

Their male counterparts only need 22.9% at 16 to 9 years and 30.9% at 60 to 79 years.

Hence, the essential body fat for women is higher than that of men.

Here is how the average percentages differ for women in specific groups and categories:

  • Essential fats: 10% to 13%
  • Athletes: 14% to 20%: 21% to 24%
  • Average: 25% to 31%
  • Obese: 32% and above

For men, the percentages differ as follows:

  • Essential body fats: 2% to 5%
  • Athletes: 6% to 13%
  • Fitness: 14% to 20%
  • Average: 21% to 24%
  • Obese: 25% and above (3)
essential fat vs storage fat vs body fat
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Risks Of Having A High Percentage Of Fat

Having too much fat can be harmful to your body’s health. The following are the risks of having high contents of different types of fat:

  • Visceral fat: Has been linked with the following conditions:
  • Heart disease
  • Some types of cancer
  • Hormone disturbances
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Stroke
  • Subcutaneous: A certain level of this fat is normal, but too much can lead to the following:
  • Imbalanced hormone levels
  • Sensitivity
  • White fat: This type is necessary for good health; however, if it is in higher content, it could be harmful in the following ways:
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

Brown, beige, and essential fats are useful to your body. They do not increase your risk of contracting any chronic disease (13).

essential body fat primary source
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How To Measure Your Body Fat Percentage?

Now that you know the importance of fats, risks, and normal percentages, how would you know the amount of fat in your body? Well, it turns out that body composition can be measured via several methods. They include the following:

  • Underwater Weighing

Irrespective of their location, fat cells are composed of triglycerides with a density of 0.9 Kilograms per liter.

Your body tissues are made up of 72% water, 21% protein, and 7% minerals. The density of each component is known. The theoretical density of body water is 0.993, proteins 1.340, and minerals 3.000.

Hence, if you are immersed in water, and the volume of water displaced is measured correctly, your body fat percentage would be determined easily (11).

  • Whole-Body Air Displacement Plethysmography (ADP)

ADP uses the same principles as underwater weighing. The only difference here is that air will be displaced in place of water.

The method is well suited for the elderly, disabled, children, obese, and other subjects that cannot be immersed in the water. It is, however, not as accurate as underwater weighing. Accuracy will reduce as the amount of fat in the body rises (1).

  • Near-Infrared Interactance

Infra-red beams will be transmitted into your biceps. The light will be reflected and also absorbed by your body fat.

The amount absorbed can be calculated by subtracting the incident ray from the reflected ray. This is a more non-invasive, more rapid, easier, and safer method to use (2).

  • X-Ray Absorptiometry

This is the newest method of measuring the number of your body fats. X-rays of two different energies are used to scan your body. One of the two is absorbed strongly by fats while the other is not.

Special computer software is used to subtract one image from the other to get the difference. This amount will indicate your fat composition.

Read More: Body Fat Percentage Calculator: Can You Diagnose Obesity With It?

  • Expansions

In-vivo neutron activation methods are used here. These techniques can quantify your body’s elements using the mathematical relationship of different components of the body, such as fats (10).

  • Average Density Measurements

A long time ago, this was one of the most accurate methods of measuring body fats. The technique works by measuring your density (your total mass divided by volume).

After finding your density, a formula is applied to calculate your body fat percentage. However, this technique is distorted because people have different densities of muscles and bones (5).

essential body fat percentage
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  • Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)

BIA used two or more conductors that are attached to your body. A small amount of electricity is induced in your organs. Fat is a poor conductor of electricity. Hence, the resistance between any two electrodes gives you the amount of fat between the pair.

  • Skinfold

This is a method based on a pinch test. Generally, a pinch of your skin is measured by calipers or a plicometer.

Several parts of your body are also measured to determine your subcutaneous fat thickness.

An equation is used to convert the measurements into percentages. Some formulas might require up to three measurements, while others as many as six or seven.

  • Height Circumference

Your height and girth can also estimate your fat content. The US Army and Marine Corps largely use this method.

Measurements of your neck and waist are taken if you are a male. Females have their hips, waist, and neck checked.

The measurements are looked at in already published tables to determine your body fat content (14).

  • The BMI

Body fat can also be estimated using the Body Mass Index (BMI) quantity. To obtain your BMI, divide your mass in kilograms with height in meters and multiply the result by 703.

You can estimate your fat composition via the following equations:

For children = (1.51 X BMI) – (0.70 x age) – (3.6 X sex) +1.4

For Adults = (1.20 X BMI) + (0.23 x age) – (10.8 x sex) – 5.4 (17)

essential fat vs storage fat vs body fat
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Fats And Diet

Most people assume that the essential body fat primary source and other fats are a high-fat diet. Well, this is partially true. However, you cannot cut down on fat consumption as they are needed for good health.

What you need to cut down is refined foods with high carbs and low fiber, making you have excess fats. Highly refined sugars and these processed foods have been linked with increased visceral fat, which is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat.

Also, high-calorie foods have the same effect as refined meals. If you consume them in a high quantity, then you will have more than enough calories in your body. Your body will store the extra fat under the skin and around your body organs.

How To Maintain Healthy Levels Of Fat?

You should not let fats make up a large percentage of your body. You need to shed them off to acceptable levels to reduce the risks of contracting chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and so forth. Follow the tips below:

  • Check On Your Diet

This is one of the popular ways to reduce all the non-essential fats in your body. Reduce the number of carbs and calories you take every day. This is in an attempt to make your body have a calorie deficit. It will burn the stored fats to cater for the insufficiency.

Consume a lot of proteins to avoid losing your muscle mass as you burn excess fats. Also, make sure you do not skip any meal unless you are fasting. Not taking your breakfast or lunch might lure you to eating unhealthy calorie-rich snacks such as chocolate, French fries, and so forth (12).

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essential body fat for women
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  • Exercise

Physical activities can help you shed some fats off. If you are new to exercise, do not rush things. Start slowly to avoid burnouts and injuries.

Later, you can incorporate strength training into your sessions, which increases your metabolism, muscle mass, and prevents weight gain.

  • Combine Diet And Exercise

A healthy diet will only be effective if combined with physical activities. The training will help you burn a lot more calories than you would have with diet alone. This combination is one of the most effective methods of losing fat and keeping those kilograms from coming back.

If you are visiting the gym quite often, you need to make sure your diet can support your training. You should not go to training without eating enough food (7).

  • Surgical Methods

If you want instant results, you can go for a medical procedure to reduce your body fat. Make sure qualified physicians and surgeons perform the procedure.

This method is a bit costly. It might also leave you immobile for a few days or weeks.

  • Consider Fasting

When you fast, you do not take any food for a certain period. This makes the body use the stored fats to provide the energy needed for your daily activities. Hence, you are likely to lose more fat if you fast often.

Remember that you shouldn’t go to the gym with an empty stomach. You should also avoid soft drinks. Stick to water only. When you are breaking, you are fast, eat small amounts of food to avoid stomach complications (8).

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The Bottom Line

Fat cells can be stored in three methods: essential, visceral, and subcutaneous fat. Essential body fat is vital for your health and functioning of your organs. The rest pose a health risk if found in large quantities in your body.

If you want to do even more for your body, why don’t you supplement a healthy diet with some exercise? Check out this 20-min Full Body Workout at Home.

DISCLAIMER: 

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

SOURCES:

  1. Air Displacement Plethysmography versus Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry in Underweight, Normal-Weight, and Overweight/Obese Individuals (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  2. A new approach for the estimation of body composition: infrared interactance (1984, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  3. Body Fat Measurement: Percentage Vs. Body Mass (2003, webmd.com)
  4. Cold Acclimation Recruits Human Brown Fat And Increases Nonshivering Thermogenesis (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  5. Densitometric Analysis Of Body Composition: Revision Of Some Quantitative Assumptions (1963, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  6. Dietary fats explained (2018, medlineplus.gov)
  7. Diet plus exercise is more effective for weight loss than either method alone (2011, sciencedaily.com)
  8. Eating in a 6-hour window and fasting for 18 hours might help you live longer (2020, edition.cnn.com)
  9. Fat Facts: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats (2008, webmd.com)
  10. Improved models for determination of body fat by in vivo neutron activation (1984, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  11. Keeping Tabs on Your Fat (2007, nytimes.com)
  12. Losing fat while gaining muscle: Scientists close in on ‘holy grail’ of diet and exercise (2016, sciencedaily.com)
  13. The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity (2020, cdc.gov)
  14. The Trouble With Growth Charts (2019, nytimes.com)
  15. QuickStats: Mean Percentage Body Fat,* by Age Group and Sex — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1999–2004† (2009, cdc.gov)
  16. Weight Loss And Healthy Living Guide (2013, medicinenet.com)
  17. What ways are there to measure body fat? (2019, medicalnewstoday.com)
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L. Lawrence
L. Lawrence

Lilly is a professional writer specializing in health and science writing. She’s highly inspired by questions of science, which particularly concern nutrition, fitness and medicine. She is a firm advocate for a healthy lifestyle, which is why she creates informative articles based on scientific research and strives to deliver clear and yet detailed information on how to take care of your body and mind. Lilly never fails to flesh out her articles with no-frills nutritional advice, up-to-date fitness tips, and latest medical research data which helps readers get a better grasp on the issue they are concerned about.

S. Ziou
S. Ziou

Hi everyone! I am a Canadian Registered Dietitian (RD) who graduated from the University of Ottawa, Canada. I worked at the Montreal Pediatric University Hospital and the Ottawa Heart Institute before joining the International Clinic of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. With a strong interest in community nutrition, I worked in Haiti and in Syrian refugee camps affected by the scourge of malnutrition. I am passionate about food and its science!

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