Find out how to ditch harmful visceral fat the healthy way with diet and exercise.
We know that being overweight or obese is a health risk, but what about the body fat that we can’t see?
At any weight, it is possible to have more hidden or ‘visceral fat’ than is healthy. Even the slimmest person in the room may carry excess visceral fat, so it is important to be aware of what it might mean for your body and health.
Here Dr Louise Wiseman talks about what visceral fat is, why it is harmful and the great benefits on your body and mind of reducing it in the long term.
Is all fat bad for you?
We know that a certain amount of fat is important for insulation and metabolism. Being underweight can carry serious health risks of its own. Fat plays an important role in the body and it is essential to have some of it.
Subcutaneous fat, or the fat under our skin that we can pinch, produces some beneficial molecules, including:
- the hormone Leptin that acts on the brain to suppress appetite and burn stored fat.
- the hormone Adiponectin which helps protect against diabetes by regulating fat and sugar processing and even has an anti-inflammatory effect on blood vessel linings.
- after menopause the fatty tissue is one of the main sources of Oestrogen.
So you can see that the fat cell is really a hormonal or endocrine organ – part of our hormonal system that can have an effect on all of the body.
However, not all fat works the same in the body. This is one place where ‘location, location, location’ can be paramount. Increasing research shows that the roles of fat in different areas of the body can be quite variable.
Increasing research shows that the roles of fat in different areas of the body can be quite variable.
We think about 90 per cent of our fat is subcutaneous and the remaining 10 per cent is ‘visceral’ or ‘inside the abdomen’. It stands to reason if you are carrying excess fat it is likely you are carrying excess visceral fat.
What is visceral fat?
Visceral fat is the fat stored deep within the abdominal cavity. This is not the fat you can pinch or hold around your tummy, but far deeper beneath the firm abdominal wall. It is in the spaces around the liver, intestines and other organs. It is also found in something called the ‘omentum’ which is a large flap of tissue under the tummy muscles and protecting the intestines like a blanket.
How to tell if you have visceral fat
Having ‘belly fat’ does not always mean there is a large amount of visceral fat as this can still be subcutaneous but a larger waist can indicate deep fat beneath. The only way to definitively diagnose the amount of visceral fat someone carries is by a CT or MRI scan which is just not feasible.
A simple tape measure may be the best guide to use at home. Harvard Health in USA recommends measuring your waistline at belly button level (not the narrowest point) and without sucking everything in relax and measure without pulling the tape tight. UK guidance suggests similarly measuring half way between low end of ribs and top of hip bones. Around 35 inches (around 89 cm) or above in women and 40 inches (around 102cm) or above in men will most likely indicate excess visceral fat and an increased risk of health problems. This is not always entirely accurate so some doctors will look at waist height ratios or compare on charts to suggested waist sizes for body mass index (BMI)
At the most basic level, your favourite jeans are not fitting at all this could be an indication.
Risks of visceral fat
Visceral fat is also often called ‘active’ fat because it has strong effects on the body.
Just like a healthy amount of subcutaneous fat produces some potent hormones, visceral fat can have a strong influence on the body but in a less beneficial way.
Visceral fat is also often called ‘active’ fat because it has strong effects on the body.
Visceral fat makes more ‘cytokines’ than other fat – these can cause inflammation in the body and promote heart disease and other problems. It also produces a protein that encourages blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to go up. Together with these effects it manufactures a molecule that increases insulin resistance. All of this means that visceral fat potentially increases the risk of:
• Cardiovascular disease
Blood pressure and blood sugar are elevated, fats in blood go up and good cholesterol goes down. This is called Metabolic Syndrome and increases the risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Doctors are keen to reverse this when it occurs.
Alzheimers and other forms of dementia are more likely.
This might be worsened as the body is in more of an inflammatory state.
• Breast cancer
Having a larger waist in younger women seems to put them at higher risk.
• Colorectal cancer
The risk of polyps and precancerous polyps might be increased.
Do genetics influence visceral fat?
Where you carry fat can depend on genes but also hormones, age, lifestyle and many factors. For example, women who have had children tend to develop more visceral fat than those who haven’t. Women usually have less visceral fat than men in the younger years but after menopause this is where it tends to increase.
Because of the way visceral fat can be broken down into its building blocks called fatty acids fairly easily, it is also easier fat through diet and exercise than that on our thighs and bottom.
If you are naturally apple shaped you tend to put more weight on around the tummy and if pear shaped more on the thighs and hips. The latter is more likely to be simple subcutaneous fat so less risk to health, but as stated the tummy fat of those more apple shaped is fat that may be easier to lose. Subcutaneous fat can be stubborn and harder to lose.
How to get rid of visceral fat
When it comes to visceral fat there’s good and bad news. The bad news is that it poses a bigger threat to health than other, subcutaneous fat. The good news is that it’s considered easier to shift.
Above all 30 minutes of exercise a day is a good start from all current research and recommendations.
Here are six, evidence-based ways to get rid of visceral fat:
1. Shrink your portion sizes
Yes, it sounds obvious, but hear us out. One study compared popular diets including high dairy, abdominal exercise and a reduced calorie diet. Of the three, the reduced calorie diet fared the best, with participants revealing a 12 per cent reduction in visceral fat and a five per cent decrease in overall body fat. Participants controlled portions using hands and finger as measuring guides, as well as cutting out snacking.
Try this: If you think portion size is your downfall, it can be easily remedied. With a bit of planning, it is possible to reduce portion size without going hungry (or short on nutrients). Plan for the week ahead. Ensure your meals include plenty of protein and don’t be tempted to skimp on filling, healthy carbs such as baked potatoes, whole grains and plenty of fruit and veg.
2. Opt for whole grains
One study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a calorie-controlled diet that includes whole grains significantly reduced abdominal fat. This is partly because refined grains tend to leave you feeling less full and may interfere with blood sugar levels – and subsequently appetite control.
Try this: there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to whole grains. To keep your diet as varied, interesting and nutritious as possible, pick from carbs like whole oats, whole wheat and rye, bulgur wheat and brown rice. Look out in the supermarket for wholewheat couscous and maybe try alternatives to the traditional and make pancakes with buckwheat flour.
3. Focus on cardio
When it comes to your stomach, cardio beats pumping iron. A Duke University study, which compared the effects of resistance training sessions to the equivalent of running 12 miles a week, found that aerobic exercise had the biggest effect on both visceral and liver fat.
Try this: while resistance training may not have a direct impact on visceral fat, it’s still good for increasing strength and boosting muscle tissue, which in turn helps to burn calories more efficiently (and will end up having a knock-on effect to that belly fat).
For best results: combine 3-4 weekly sessions of 30-40 minutes of cardio with a resistance training routine that works on everything from core exercises to compound exercises for upper and lower body, such as a variety of squats, lunges, press ups and planks.
4. Don’t forget fibre
A study undertaken by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre found that eating 10g of soluble fibre a day resulted in a 3.7 per cent reduction in visceral fat over five years. Soluble fibre forms a gel-like consistency when it reaches your tum and, as well as helping to keep you full, also helps to block the absorption of cholesterol.
Try this: introduce fibre gradually into your diet to save sending your digestion into overdrive. Soluble fibre is found in grains like oats and rye, fruit such as apples and bananas, as well as beans and pulses.
5. Eat healthy fats
It’s well documented that the type of fat you eat is as important as the amount of fat you eat – healthy fats can benefit everything from brain function to waist size. One study undertaken by the American Diabetes Association found a higher intake of monounsaturated fats also led to lower central fat distribution, as well as a decrease in insulin resistance.
Conversely, trans-fats, the ‘bad’ guys, have a negative impact on your tum – Wake Forest University researchers found that a diet high in trans-fats doesn’t just contribute to overall belly fat, it also helps to shift fat from other areas to the belly.
Try this: to reduce your trans-fat intake, avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated fat or oil. This includes processed foods such as biscuits and cakes; spreads or margarine or vegetables oils that have been heated to very high temperatures for frying. Monounsaturated fats, the good guys, can be found in avocados, olive and sunflower oil and most nuts.
6. Get a good night’s sleep
Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that participants who averaged fewer than five hours of shut-eye a night gained more abdominal fat over five years than those who averaged six hours or more. The take home message? Get more sleep.
Try this: work on your sleep hygiene. Have a cut-off for screen time 90 minutes prior to bed at the latest and allow yourself plenty of time to unwind. Enhance your bedtime routine by dimming lights earlier in the evening, introduce a short bedtime stretching routine and don’t go to bed full or hungry. Use an eye mask if the room is not dark and try reading a paper book to unwind rather than checking your social feed at night.
7. Reduce stress
Really importantly, cortisol, the stress hormone is a great driver for making us hang onto fat around the central area so possibly also our visceral fat too. Reduce stress levels by lifestyle, exercise, meditation, relaxation to give yourself the best chance of calming your body and mind down.
8. Change your diet
It is really easy to gain visceral fat fast from a diet of sugary drinks and high empty calorie intake from non-nutritious food. If choosing fruit eat the raw fruit rather than excessive juice intake and make sure you have a balanced diet and do not rely on quick sugar fixes for energy. Complex carbohydrates and quality protein will provide you with energy much more sustaining than a quick sugar fix.
9. Quitting smoking and reducing alcohol
Stopping smoking and reducing alcohol are vital for any healthy bodily changes and remember even though you can’t see it, losing that visceral fat could do wonders for your future health and wellbeing.