What is subcutaneous fat?
Subcutaneous fat is a type of fat that’s stored just beneath your skin. Your skin is made up of three layers – the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat is the deepest layer of your skin. It serves many functions. Subcutaneous fat:
- Pads your muscles and bones to protect you from bumps and falls.
- Helps your blood vessels and nerves get from your skin to your muscles.
- Controls your body temperature, making sure you don’t get too warm or too cold.
- Attaches your middle layer of skin (dermis) to your muscles and bones with special connective tissue.
What’s the difference between subcutaneous fat and visceral fat?
Visceral fat is fat that lies deep within your abdominal organs and can’t be seen from the outside. It surrounds your stomach, liver, intestines and other important organs. Subcutaneous fat is different. Subcutaneous fat is the fat just under your skin. It’s the kind that you can grab and pinch between your fingers. Subcutaneous fat collects mainly around your hips, butt, thighs and belly.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes subcutaneous fat?
Genetics determine the amount of subcutaneous fat you start with – everyone has some. Environmental factors play an important role in how much subcutaneous fat you develop over time.
A non-healthy diet with high amounts of fatty foods and an inactive lifestyle are the main environmental factors that can contribute to an increase in subcutaneous fat. You may also have more subcutaneous fat if you have low muscle mass and don’t do any aerobic activity. If you have diabetes or are insulin resistant, you may have higher levels of subcutaneous fat as well.
What are the health risks of too much subcutaneous fat?
Some subcutaneous fat is good for your body. It protects your body, serves as an energy reserve and has many other functions. However, too much subcutaneous fat can be unhealthy. If you have too much subcutaneous fat, it’s often a sign that you have too much visceral fat. Too much visceral fat can lead to serious health issues such as:
- Certain cancers: Extra fat raises your risk of developing some cancers.
- Fatty liver diseases: Fatty liver diseases are conditions in which fat builds up in your liver.
- Gallbladder diseases: Gallbladder diseases include gallstones that can lead to inflammation of your gallbladder (cholecystitis).
- Heart disease: Heart disease means you have a problem with your heart.
- High blood pressure (hypertension): High blood pressure happens when blood flows through your blood vessels with greater force than normal.
- Kidney disease: Kidney disease occurs when your kidneys are damaged and can’t filter blood as they should.
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes pain, swelling and reduced motion in your joints.
- Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a disorder in which you don’t breathe regularly while sleeping.
- Stroke: A stroke can occur when the blood supply to your brain suddenly cuts off due to a blockage or bursting of a blood vessel in your brain or neck.
- Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is a disease that occurs when your blood sugar is too high.
Diagnosis and Tests
What is a normal subcutaneous fat percentage?
For most people, subcutaneous fat makes up about 90% of their body fat. The remaining 10% makes up visceral fat. There are several ways you can measure your body fat at home:
- Body mass index (BMI): BMI measures your body fat based on your height and weight. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 may indicate you have overweight. A BMI of 30 or more may indicate obesity.
- Waist circumference: Place a tape measure around your waist just above your hip bones (usually near your belly button). For women, 35 inches or more means you’re at risk for health problems. For men, the number is 40 inches or more.
- Waist-height ratio: Divide your waist circumference by your height. A healthy ratio is no greater than 0.5. This ratio communicates the simple message that you should keep your waist size to less than half of your height.
Management and Treatment
How do you get rid of subcutaneous fat?
The best way to lose subcutaneous fat is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You can lower your subcutaneous fat level by focusing on a fat-burning diet and exercise plan. In addition, getting enough sleep and keeping stress at bay are important for losing subcutaneous fat.
- Diet: Concentrate on eating fewer calories than you burn. Your diet should include lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables. Protein helps you feel full longer. Reduce the number of carbohydrates, sugars, salt and red meat in your diet.
- Exercise: Your body stores energy in subcutaneous fat. You need to burn that energy, which means burning calories. Exercises you can do to burn calories include aerobic activity, strength training, cardio and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT workouts cycle between bursts of intense effort and quick recovery.
- Get a good night’s sleep: Too little sleep increases your hunger and makes you want to reach for high-carb, high-calorie foods. Develop a nighttime routine that includes no screens and no heavy meals right before bed.
- Reduce your stress: Stress activates a hormone called cortisol. Too much cortisol can undermine your ability to lose weight because it tells your body to hold onto the excess fat.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
It’s important to see your healthcare provider regularly. They can track your body fat percentage, including your subcutaneous fat. If you measure your body fat at home and your measurements are higher than recommended, make an appointment to see your provider. They can talk to you about your health risks and recommend a diet and exercise plan that’ll work for you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Subcutaneous fat is fat that’s found under your skin. Too much subcutaneous fat can be a sign that you have too much visceral fat. Visceral fat lies deep within your abdominal cavity and surrounds your organs. Too much fat can have harmful effects on your health. By maintaining a healthy diet and keeping up with regular exercise, you can burn calories and shed the subcutaneous fat your body is storing. If you suspect you may have too much subcutaneous fat, talk to your healthcare provider. They can talk to you about your health risks and recommend a diet and exercise plan that’ll work for you.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy