Body fat is stored in anatomically distinct adipose depots that vary in their cell composition and play specialized roles in systemic metabolic homeostasis via secreted products. Their local effects on nearby tissues (e.g. the gut and visceral adipose tissues) are increasingly recognized and this local crosstalk is being elucidated. The major subcutaneous fat depots, abdominal and gluteal–femoral, exert opposite effects on the risk of metabolic disease. The pace of research into developmental, sex, and genetic determinants of human adipose depot growth and function is rapidly accelerating, providing insight into the pathogenesis of metabolic dysfunction in persons with obesity.