The Dangers of Visceral Fat - and How to Get Rid of It

As we age, our bodies undergo many changes and one of the most notable is an increase in body fat. In particular, visceral fat — fat surrounding vital organs such as your liver, pancreas, and intestines can be dangerous when present in high amounts over a long period. If you’re worried that this type of fat has snuck up on you, you should understand the dangers it poses to your health and what steps you can take to reduce it

What is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat, also known as “Intraperitoneal Fat,” is a type of body fat that’s stored within the abdominal cavity [1]. It is located near several vital organs, including the liver, stomach, and intestines, which makes its presence potentially dangerous. Visceral fat develops just like any other type of fat in our body; when we consume more calories than our body can burn, the excess energy is stored as fat. While some fat storage under the skin is normal, excessive consumption of unhealthy, processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to an over-accumulation of visceral fat, raising health risks.

How to Measure Visceral Fat

  1. Body Mass Index (BMI): This is a simple calculation using a person’s height and weight. Though it does not measure body fat directly, it can be a useful tool to categorize weight status.
  2. Hip to Waist Ratio: It compares the size of your waist with your hips. A higher ratio means that you have a high amount of fat around your waist, which may be indicative of high levels of visceral fat [2].
  3. Body Shape: Observing your body shape can also give clues about visceral fat. Apple-shaped bodies, where excess weight is stored in the stomach area, have more visceral fat than pear-shaped bodies, where weight is stored in the buttocks, hips, and thighs.
  4. Imaging Tests: A more accurate assessment of visceral fat can be done through imaging tests such as CT scans and MRI. These tests provide a detailed view of the location and volume of the fat in the body, but they are more expensive and may not be necessary for everyone [3].

What Health Risks Do Visceral Fat Pose?

1)  Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Visceral fat is often linked to heart diseases as it produces inflammatory markers that can lead to atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. This condition can increase the risk of both heart attack and stroke.

2)  Development of Type 2 Diabetes

Visceral fat impacts the body’s ability to use insulin effectively, leading to insulin resistance. This can result in the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, as the body’s inability to regulate blood sugar levels can lead to hyperglycemia [4].

3)  High Blood Pressure

The presence of excessive visceral fat can disrupt the normal function of hormones that regulate blood pressure. This can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.

4)  Increased Risk of Cancer

Studies suggest a correlation between high levels of visceral fat and the increased likelihood of certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer and colon cancer. This is due to the systemic inflammation and hormonal imbalances caused by an excess of visceral fat.

5)  Impact on Mental Health

Not only does excess visceral fat have physical health consequences, but it can also affect mental well-being. Research has shown a link between high levels of visceral fat and an increased risk of depression and anxiety.

How do we get rid of it?

1)  Get On the Move

Regular exercise plays a crucial role in the targeted reduction of visceral fat, the hidden layer of fat that resides deep within your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which sits just beneath the skin, visceral fat is particularly harmful due to its proximity to vital organs, and its unique metabolic activity which can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance.

Engaging in physical activity, particularly aerobic exercises like jogging, cycling, or swimming, helps increase your heart rate and metabolism, prompting your body to use fat as an energy source [5].

Over time, this can cause a reduction in stored visceral fat. Additionally, resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be particularly effective, combining bursts of intense exercise with periods of rest, which is highly effective at burning fat.

2)  Change your Diet

Making dietary changes can significantly aid in losing visceral fat. This type of fat is stored within the abdominal cavity, surrounding vital organs like the liver, stomach, and intestines. It is particularly harmful because it can increase the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Consuming a balanced diet rich in lean proteins, whole grains, and a variety of fruits and vegetables can play a crucial role in reducing visceral fat. These foods are nutrient-dense and can keep you satiated for longer, preventing overeating. Moreover, they help to regulate blood sugar levels, which is essential in controlling weight gain.

Limiting the intake of processed foods, sugary beverages, and high-fat items is also crucial. These foods are often high in calories and low in nutrients, leading to weight gain and an increase in visceral fat. Instead, opt for healthier alternatives such as water, unsweetened tea, or homemade smoothies.

3)  Get Enough Sleep

Sleep deprivation can reduce physical activity levels during the day, contributing to a sedentary lifestyle that promotes visceral fat storage [6] [7]. When we sleep, our bodies undergo various metabolic processes, including the regulation of hormones that control appetite, energy use, and fat storage. Lack of sleep can disrupt these processes, leading to increased feelings of hunger, higher calorie intake, and a propensity for fat accumulation, particularly in the abdominal area.

Sleep deprivation can reduce physical activity levels during the day, contributing to a sedentary lifestyle that promotes visceral fat storage.

Therefore, ensuring sufficient sleep each night is not just a matter of feeling rested; it is also an essential part of maintaining a healthy body composition and combating visceral fat.

References:

  1. Klein S. The case of visceral fat: argument for the defense. J Clin Invest 2004;113:1530–2. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI200422028.
  2. Liu H, Yang D, Li S, Xiao Y, Tu Y, Peng D, et al. A Reliable Estimate of Visceral Fat Area From Simple Anthropometric Measurements in Chinese Overweight and Obese Individuals. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne) 2022;13:916124. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2022.916124.
  3. van der Kooy K, Seidell JC. Techniques for the measurement of visceral fat: a practical guide. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1993;17:187–96.
  4. Frayn KN. Visceral fat and insulin resistance–causative or correlative? Br J Nutr 2000;83 Suppl 1:S71-77. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007114500000982.
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3568069.
  6. Theorell-Haglöw J, Berne C, Janson C, Sahlin C, Lindberg E. Associations between short sleep duration and central obesity in women. Sleep 2010;33:593–8.
  7. Beccuti G, Pannain S. Sleep and obesity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2011;14:402–12. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e3283479109.