Subcutaneous Fat: Safe Amounts, Causes, Ways to Reduce It

Medically Reviewed By Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
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Subcutaneous fat is the visible fat that you can pinch directly underneath the skin. It is in the subcutaneous layer, the third and deepest layer of the skin. Having subcutaneous fat is essential for your bodies to work correctly. However, having too much of it can be harmful. Several factors, such as heredity and hormones, can influence the amount of fat a person has.

This article will discuss subcutaneous fat, its associated conditions, and some tips to help reduce subcutaneous fat.

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. This article uses the terms “female” and/or “male” to refer to sex that was assigned at birth. 

Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

What is subcutaneous fat?

A woman using a workout band
Tony Anderson/Getty Images

There are two types of fat in the body: subcutaneous and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is the type of fat you can feel because it is under the skin. Some people describe it as the kind of fat you can “jiggle.”

Subcutaneous fat plays many important roles, including:

  • being an energy source for the body
  • protecting the body from injury
  • affecting the body’s ability to heal
  • playing a role in hormone messaging

In contrast, visceral fat is deep in the abdominal cavity and around organs. Experts consider visceral fat to be more dangerous than subcutaneous fat. Research links it to an increased risk for many different diseases.

Both types of fat are necessary for the body to function. However, too much of either may be harmful to your health.

What conditions are associated with subcutaneous fat?

Excess subcutaneous fat is typically present in people with obesity, which experts define as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Obesity correlates with reduced quality of life, reduced mobility, and a shortened lifespan.

Excess body fat is also a risk factor for many different conditions, including:

Obesity and fat cells can harm the body because obesity leads to chronic low-grade inflammation. Additionally, expanding fat cells release pro-inflammatory cytokines that can damage fat tissue and promote insulin resistance.

It is also important to understand that excess fat does not always correlate with weight. It is possible to be overweight without having excess fat. It is also possible to be at a moderate weight but still have excess fat cells.

10 things doctors want you to know about weight and obesity.

How much subcutaneous fat should I have?

A 2000 study outlines general body fat percentages based on recommended BMI ranges for adult males and females (sexes assigned at birth).

20–39 years old40–59 years old60–79 years old
Female21–33%23–34%24–36%
Male8–20%11–22%13–25%

BMI is a calculation of a person’s body fat based on their height and weight. However, studies show that it is a poor indicator of a person’s body fat percentage. It can be misleading because the measure does not account for overall body composition. Factors the BMI measurement overlooks include bone density, muscle mass, and visceral versus subcutaneous fat.

This means that these body fat percentages can vary for everyone and may not accurately indicate your percentage of subcutaneous fat. For additional information, talk with your doctor about other body fat assessment methods.

What are the best exercises to burn subcutaneous fat?

To help reduce the associated risks of excess fat, your doctor may recommend incorporating exercise into your daily routine.

Exercises to reduce overall body fat can help burn off excess subcutaneous fat. These include:

Aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercise uses fat as a primary fuel, so it can help burn fat. Aerobic exercise is any type of movement that increases your heart rate for a certain amount of time. Some examples include:

  • brisk walking
  • running
  • swimming
  • jumping rope
  • cycling

Strength training

Strength training can help burn off excess fat. Having more muscle mass increases your resting metabolic rate, which means you will burn more calories at rest.

Increasing your muscle mass also increases your body’s storage capacity for glycogen, a form of glucose. This means your body can store more energy in your muscles instead of storing it as fat. More muscle mass also increases insulin sensitivity and helps reduce blood sugar, which helps with weight management.

High intensity interval training

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is an efficient and effective way to burn off excess fat. Compared with aerobic exercise, HIIT leads to a 28.5% greater reduction in absolute fat mass.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) states that adults can benefit from these types of exercises.

Always discuss any significant exercise changes with your doctor. Some exercises, especially ones that significantly increase heart rate, may not be safe for some people.

Learn the 12 best exercises for weight loss.

What are some other tips to lose subcutaneous fat?

The key to healthy weight loss is a multifaceted approach that addresses several aspects of health, such as:

Here are some additional tips that can help you lose subcutaneous fat:

Manage your stress levels

Stress influences your body fat in many ways, including increasing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This increase prompts the body to store excess fat, interrupting sleep and increasing blood sugar levels and insulin. All of these can lead to more fat in the body.

There are several ways you can reduce your stress levels, such as:

  • engaging in physical activity
  • meditating
  • practicing mindfulness
  • trying breathing exercises
  • talking about your stress with a trusted source

Prioritize protein in your diet

A high protein diet can make a big difference in losing fat and how the body stores fat. Eating enough protein can help you: 

  • stay full
  • get enough nutrients
  • keep your blood sugar levels stable
  • build more muscle mass

Get enough sleep

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), insufficient sleep may affect your metabolism and increase your body weight.

What foods can lead to excess subcutaneous fat?

There is no one-size-fits-all diet. However, certain foods can cause more excess body fat than others. Understanding the difference can help you make the best nutrition choices for you.

Research has linked the following foods to higher levels of fat in the body:

Ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods correlate with negative health outcomes, including overweight and obesity. This includes:

  • packaged foods, such as:
    • potato chips
    • sugary breakfast cereals
    • crackers
  • baked goods, such as:
    • pastries
    • cakes
    • cookies

Excess sugar

Added sugars have links to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. A 2020 meta-analysis finds that artificially sweetened beverages correlate to higher risks of:

High glycemic carbohydrates

Carbohydrates that cause a sudden increase in your blood sugar levels also correlate to obesity and excess fat levels. This includes:

  • white potatoes
  • white rice
  • white bread
  • sugary snacks and drinks

Summary

Subcutaneous fat is critical for your health and functionality. However, too much can be harmful. Excess subcutaneous fat often occurs alongside obesity, which is a BMI of 30 or greater. Obesity can damage the fat tissue, increasing your risk of various diseases.

Several different strategies can help lower excess fat levels. If your doctor recommends reducing body fat, discuss a strategy that combines diet, exercise, stress management, and sleep hygiene.

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Medical Reviewer: Adam Bernstein, MD, ScD
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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