We tend to use the word “fat” as a catch-all term for the excess pounds we want to lose, but there are actually two main types of fat that collect throughout our bodies: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat.
And while we have to have at least some fat to stay healthy, many of us have more than we need — and this can be a problem, especially if it’s visceral fat.
What Is Visceral Fat?
When you think of fat, you probably think of subcutaneous fat, which is found right under the skin. This is the fat you can pinch or jiggle, like love handles or belly fat.
Visceral fat, on the other hand, is the type of fat you (usually) can’t see. Visceral fat is stored deep inside your midsection, where it helps to keep your organs cushioned and warm. “It helpfully buffers and holds in place some of your internal organs, like your pancreas,” says John La Puma, MD, FACP, an internist and author of REFUEL.
So it’s definitely important to have some visceral fat — but it’s also possible to have too much. If your torso feels bloated and hard — or if your overall shape is more “apple” than “pear” — you may be carrying too much visceral fat, La Puma says.
What Causes Visceral Fat?
The answer is in your kitchen. Visceral fat comes from consuming more calories than our bodies need. And that can be compounded by eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) — a term used to describe the Western dietary pattern of consuming high-sugar, calorie-dense, processed foods on a regular basis.
Hormones can also play a role, La Puma says. Higher levels of “bioavailable” (aka “free”) testosterone are associated with higher levels of visceral fat, which might explain why men tend to have more visceral fat than women, and also why women tend to have more visceral fat after menopause.
Why Is Visceral Fat Dangerous?
“People with excess visceral fat can have issues with insulin resistance, meaning the body ‘ignores’ the normal levels of insulin put out by the pancreas, resulting in higher blood glucose levels,” says Linda Hodges, MD, a triple board-certified doctor of internal care medicine, critical care medicine, and obesity medicine.
How to Measure Visceral Fat
You’ll have to head to the doctor’s office if you want to get precise numbers on the amount of visceral fat in your body.
“The truest, most precise way to measure visceral fat is with an abdominal CT scan or MRI,” Hodges says. But these scans can set you back a pretty penny, even with insurance. One easy alternative: “There are quality scales made by InBody and SECA that can measure visceral fat with fairly good accuracy,” Hodges says.
You can also get an idea of the amount of visceral fat you’re carrying around using a simple measuring tape. “Measure your waist with a tape measure with your clothes off,” La Puma says. “If your waist [circumference] is more than half your height, you [might] have more visceral fat than is healthy.”
One study found that a man with a waist circumference of 40 inches or more is 12 times as likely to develop diabetes as a man with a 29-inch to 34-inch waist. In general, you should work on losing visceral fat if your waist circumference is more than 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (for men).
The Fastest Way to Lose Visceral Fat
In general, the same strategies that help you lose overall body fat will help you drop visceral fat, too.
“Visceral fat can be reduced by overall weight loss,” says Dr. Hodges. Low-carb diets in particular have been linked to visceral fat loss. One study found that following a low-glycemic load diet (compared to a high-glycemic load diet) may significantly reduce visceral fat, and another found that portion-controlled meals reduced visceral fat in overweight or obese participants.
Moderate to vigorous exercise has also been shown to reduce visceral fat. Even going for a walk each day has been shown to protect against insulin resistance and visceral fat storage, adds Dr. Hodges.
High-intensity interval workouts are “the most efficient method” of targeting visceral fat, according to La Puma. (Research has shown that both high-intensity and moderate-intensity workouts are effective for reducing visceral fat, but HIIT workouts are more efficient time-wise.)
Whichever way you choose, combining a healthy, calorie-controlled diet with regular exercise is the best way to drop visceral fat — and keep it off for good.
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