Subcutaneous Fat: Causes, Risks and Ways to Reduce it

Parul Dube

May 27, 2022

The adipose (fatty) tissue beneath the skin is called subcutaneous fat. A layer of subcutaneous fat lies between the dermis and underlying connective tissue. It is primarily located in the upper and lower areas of the body, depending upon gender. Subcutaneous and visceral fat are two essential components of total body fat. Almost 90% of total body fat is subcutaneous fat, and the remaining 10% is visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is a fatty tissue layer between the skin and muscles, while visceral fat is present as a covering of the abdominal cavity. Visceral fat is not present inside the abdominal organs or muscles.

Subcutaneous Fat in the Body

Women have more total body fat than men. As adolescence proceeds, female and male body fat differences become visible clearly. Sexual maturity in males and females determines adipose tissue distribution. Women accumulate more subcutaneous fat around the gynoid and lower extremities at pubertal age. As for men, they deposit more fat around their abdominal region. The average body fat present in females is 15-25% of body weight. When it comes to males, they have 6-12% body fat of total body weight. 

Body fat distribution also depends on menopausal status, i.e., the amount of subcutaneous fat is higher in the pre-menopausal state. In contrast, subcutaneous and visceral fat in the abdominal area is higher in the post-menopausal state.

Subcutaneous adipose tissue acts as a physiological buffer for excess energy intake during limited energy expenditure. In addition, it is a storehouse for extra lipid storage. But the storage capacity exceeds due to the inability of adipocytes generation or the failure to expand existing adipocytes. Usually, subcutaneous fat is present in upper and lower regions, i.e., trunk or Gluteo-femoral regions. 

As per data on cultural and race distribution of subcutaneous adipose tissue, African and American youth has the highest distribution. While East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans) have the most significant accumulation of visceral fat and the lowest subcutaneous fat.

The Roles of Subcutaneous Fat

Subcutaneous cells are biologically active fat cells that play a role in hormone messaging. There are shreds of evidence of metabolic disturbances in obese children and adolescents with peripheral insulin resistance. Within the subcutaneous fat layer, aggregates of fat cells (lipocytes) are separated by fibrous septa that are traversed by blood vessels and nerves. 

The functions of subcutaneous fat in the body are:

Acts as an Insulator

The subcutaneous layer mainly consists of fat which acts as an insulator. It regulates internal body temperature, which is independent of the surrounding environment. It promotes a homeostatic environment in the body. 

Shock Absorption

A large amount of fat in the subcutaneous layer helps to absorb trauma. During falls or other traumatic experiences, this fat layer prevents damage to bones and internal organs. It cushions deep tissues from blunt trauma or external physical stress. Research shows that increased depth of subcutaneous fat acts as a shock absorber in traumatic situations such as accidents.

Reserve Source of Energy

Body stores energy in the form of fat in the subcutaneous layer. It protects our body from suspected injuries by absorbing shock. Nerves and muscles use this subcutaneous layer to transport between muscles and other skin layers. Stem cells derived from subcutaneous adipose tissue help heal wounds and protect against photoaging and hair follicle growth.

Thermoregulatory Properties

In summer, blood vessels in the subcutaneous layer dilate to promote cooling. When the blood vessels dilate, vessels enlarge, allowing more blood circulation into the respective area. As a result, the blood flows away from warmer to colder regions, leading to the body’s heat radiation and cooling.

Causes of Excess Subcutaneous Fat

While subcutaneous fat is an essential component of the body, excess SF can cause various metabolic disorders. Excess accumulation of SF depends on multiple factors such as genetic and environmental factors:


According to a study, genes determine where and how much subcutaneous fat will store in specific body areas. Accumulation of visceral and subcutaneous fat in body stores determines the risk level of metabolic complications. Though it still needs more research.

Activity Levels

A sedentary lifestyle is highly related to excess subcutaneous fat storage. Due to low physical activity, people tend to eat excess, which is stored instead of used for physical activity. Physical inactivity raises the risk of death from heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, and diabetes. Studies show that sitting for long periods increases the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early death.


Any amount of excess calories that you eat converts into fat. So, consuming more calories than you need to provide fuel for daily metabolic activities results in excess subcutaneous fat storage. A poor diet that includes highly processed foods, sugary products, refined grains, trans fat, saturated fats, and high sodium content increases the risk of developing metabolic disorders. These metabolic disorders include insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. In addition, the high amount of subcutaneous fat can lead to more abdominal fat.

Metabolic Disorders

Metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, and cardiac diseases potentially increase the amount of subcutaneous fat. In addition, due to excess deposition, losing fat becomes a more complex process. 


As the ageing progresses, there’s a decrease in subcutaneous fat in women with an increase in visceral fat. Age-related changes in body composition occur due to independent changes in total adiposity, body weight, or waist circumference. 

Studies show that ageing is associated with progressive changes in total and local fat distribution, resulting in adverse health consequences. In addition, there’s a decrease in subcutaneous fat in the lower extremities and a higher subcutaneous and visceral fat accumulation in the abdominal region.

Hormonal Imbalance

Excess cortisol secretion (the stress hormone) leads to extra subcutaneous fat storage. In addition, subcutaneous fat secretes the hormone leptin, which controls hunger and influences weight gain. Consequently, hormonal imbalance results in the development of various metabolic conditions. As a result, it increases the accumulation of subcutaneous fat, which ultimately causes obesity conditions.

Healthy Levels of Subcutaneous Fat

A healthy level of subcutaneous fat is between 15-25% and 6-12% in women and men, respectively. To determine the levels of subcutaneous different measuring techniques are:

  • DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry)
  • Hydrostatic weighing
  • BIA (bioelectrical impedance analysis)

Skinfold Callipers

The callipers pinch adipose tissue on some body parts to measure body fat levels. In addition, skinfold callipers come under anthropometric measurements strongly associated with an individual’s metabolic risk levels. As a result, this is the most affordable, easiest, and portable method to measure the body fat accumulated in specific areas.

Waist Circumference

Another method to determine excess fat accumulation is determining waist size. A waist size above 35 inches in females and more than 40 inches in males have a higher risk of developing metabolic disorders. It is associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and kidney diseases. As per a study, waist size needs to reduce. 

A study among Asians indicates increased insulin resistance when waist size is higher than 29 inches in women and 32.5 inches in men. It can cause various metabolic conditions such as diabetes and cardiac disorders.

Waist to Hip Ratio

Waist to hip ratio reveals the health status of body shape and fat distribution. According to a 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO), a waist-to-hip ratio above 0.85 for women and 0.90 for men indicates abdominal obesity. In addition, studies show an increase in the risk of metabolic complications such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Ways to Control Body Fat Levels

Incorporating healthy lifestyle interventions such as regular physical activities and eating a nutritious and balanced diet is the best way to control subcutaneous fat levels in the body. In addition, you might need to assess your lifestyle habits such as eating patterns, sleep levels, stress levels, and physical activity to determine an effective way to reduce subcutaneous fat levels in the body. 

The basic principle of losing subcutaneous fat levels is to burn more calories than you consume. Dietary changes include having fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. In addition, it should contain lean protein (high bioavailability) and avoid high sugar, processed foods, and saturated fatty foods. Also, you need to pay attention to fibre.

Physical activities which increase the heart rate include brisk walking, running, cycling, swimming, and skipping help burn calories. 

According to experts, 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75-150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity can help lose subcutaneous fat. In addition, twice and thrice a week of strength training is recommended for weight loss. Strength training boosts the metabolism and burns calories. Though these physical activities are essential for weight loss, everyone has individual differences. So with the trial and error method, one might understand which particular diet and exercise regimen suits better.

A regular exercise regimen helps maintain a healthy body fat percentage. Consistent physical activity, adequate sleep, and a calorie deficit diet maintain healthy fat levels. In addition, managing stress levels with stress-relieving therapies help maintain body fat levels. 

Subcutaneous Vs. Visceral Fat

Subcutaneous Fat

Fat is located just below the skin, in the hypodermis layer. It is a part of the connective tissue layer and helps protect deeper body structures. It is squeezable and mainly exists in the lower body, such as the abdomen, hips, and thighs.

Visceral Fat

Fat is present within the abdominal walls and surrounds the organs. It surrounds the stomach, liver, and intestines. It cushions the organs and surrounds essential blood vessels supplying blood to abdominal organs. People with visceral fat tend to have pear and apple-shaped bodies.

Genetics and environmental factors influence body shape and size. For example, dietary interventions and exercise regimens alter the size and shape of your body, but the accumulation of fat is a function of genetics.

Excessive subcutaneous and visceral fat accumulation can lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dyslipidemia. A healthy diet, exercise, and stress therapies help lose subcutaneous and visceral fat.

The Conclusion

Subcutaneous fat serves several functions, such as thermoregulation, body insulation, hormone secretion, and energy reserves. But excess deposition of subcutaneous fat in the body increases the risk of metabolic health conditions. Therefore, it is essential to keep the subcutaneous fat levels under check. A healthy diet and a proper exercise regimen are the keys to losing extra subcutaneous fat. Consulting a health care provider before incorporating health interventions in your lifestyle is essential as every individual has different body needs. Health care provider helps in determining total body fat levels to determine the health risks.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. How do I lose subcutaneous fat?

A. Storing subcutaneous fat is one of the body’s ways to store energy. Therefore, it is necessary to burn calories to lose subcutaneous fat. Workouts that increase the heart rate help to lose subcutaneous fat. One such method is an aerobic workout which includes running, cycling, swimming, brisk walking, and rope jumping. With a calorie deficit diet and proper exercise regimen, you can lose subcutaneous fat. 

Q. Does subcutaneous fat go away?

A. It is hard to lose subcutaneous fat because it serves multiple functions in the body. But with a consistent workout regimen and clean eating, one can lose subcutaneous fat. In addition, a balanced diet with high fibre and low calories with the optimum amount of fruits and vegetables helps lose subcutaneous fat. Studies suggest that losing 6-7% of body weight can help reduce both subcutaneous and visceral fat. 

Q. What should my subcutaneous fat be?

A. In the healthy body fat percentage composition, subcutaneous fat plays an important role. It serves various functions in the body, such as providing heat, energy storage and producing hormones. A healthy range of subcutaneous fat in the body for men and women is 8-25% and 20-35%, respectively. 

Q. What food causes subcutaneous fat?

A. Subcutaneous fat results from eating more calories than needed to fuel daily activities. Eating processed foods comprising sugary products, refined grains, trans fat, fried, and high sodium levels ‌increase abdominal obesity. Abdominal obesity leads to subcutaneous fat storage. 

Q. Are love handles subcutaneous or visceral fat?

A. Subcutaneous fat is the fat just under the skin. Accumulation of excess fat around the waist refers to love handles. So love handles are usually subcutaneous fat. But extending the waistline ‌occurs because of visceral fat. 

Q. Which part of body fat burns first?

A. Losing body fat is an internal process that differs between males and females. Women ‌lose fat first from their lower body, including hips, buttocks, and thighs. Men ‌lose fat first from their abdomen. 

Q. How long does it take to lose subcutaneous fat?

A. Consistent workout and a low-calorie, high fibre balanced diet can help you lose subcutaneous fat. Studies show that losing 6-7% of body weight can help you lose subcutaneous and visceral fat. E.g., if the person weighs about 180 lbs, it will take about 6-12 weeks to lose the 6-7% of body weight.  

Q. What supplements burn visceral fat?

A. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, calcium and vitamin D supplements help decrease visceral fat. In addition, probiotics such as kefir, tofu, yoghurt, and sauerkraut are beneficial for gut and digestive health. Studies suggest ‌eating probiotics help in losing visceral fat and shedding weight. 

Q. What is your metabolic age say about you?

A. Metabolic age refers to how many calories one’s body burns at the resting stage (BMR) compared to the average BMR of people with the same chronological age ‌population. It shows the working of metabolism. It focuses on the body’s structure and composition of muscle and fat. 

Q. What triggers fat burning?

A. Eating thermogenic foods, a high fibre and protein-rich diet, and regular exercise helps to boost fat-burning function. Fat cells in the body release a hormone called leptin, also known as a fat-releasing hormone. It triggers the body to burn energy stored as fat.

About the Author

Parul holds a Masters of Medical Science in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and has worked across the globe from the U.K to New Zealand (NZ) gaining her License with the Health Professionals Council (HPC, UK) and the NZ Nutrition Council. From being a Gold medalist in Clinical Nutrition to being awarded an internship with World Health Organisation (WHO, Cairo, Egypt) and Contracts with CDC Parul has had a wide spectrum of work experiences. She is very passionate about Nutrition and Fitness and holds strong to her guiding mantras ‘ Move more’ and ‘Eat Food that your grandmother can recognize’!

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