What Is Visceral Fat — and How Can You Lose It?
We tend to use the word “fat” as a catch-all term for the excess pounds we want to lose, but there are two main types of fat that collect throughout our bodies: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. Knowing how to lose visceral fat is important for overall health and wellness.
Visceral Fat, What Is It?
So what exactly is visceral fat? When we think of fat, we often think about the kind we can jiggle or pinch around our midsection. The type of fat that you can jiggle and pinch is subcutaneous fat, which is found just under the skin.
Visceral fat is the type of fat you (usually) can’t see. Visceral fat is stored deep inside your midsection, where it pads the spaces between organs.
“It helpfully buffers and holds in place some of your internal organs, like your pancreas,” says John La Puma, MD, FACP, a board-certified internist, a professionally trained chef, and author of REFUEL.
So, while it’s important to have some visceral fat, it’s possible to have too much. If your torso feels bloated and hard — or if your overall shape is more “apple” than “pear” — you may carry too much visceral fat, La Puma says.
How to Get Rid of Visceral Fat
To lose visceral fat, consider combining strategies to target the different causes of visceral fat.
1. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT workouts are the most time-efficient method of targeting visceral fat, according to La Puma. But the catch is that you have to be fit enough to handle HIIT without increasing your risk of overtraining or injury. If you’re just beginning your exercise journey, work your way up to it.
As you do, you’ll still burn visceral fat as long as you challenge yourself. Research shows that moderate intensity aerobic exercise (think: running) is also effective for burning visceral fat. Indeed, a meta-analysis in the journal PLoS One found that following an aerobic exercise program can help reduce visceral fat even if you don’t cut calories.
2. Low-Carb and Low-Glycemic Diets
Diet also plays a key role in decreasing visceral fat. 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. In particular, diets that limit carbohydrates to 40 percent of total calories are linked linked to visceral fat loss.
3. Strength Training
While HIIT is king when it comes to burning visceral fat, strength training can also play a key role in reducing visceral fat.
“Although not as effective at eliminating visceral fat as aerobic training, building muscle enables your body to become more efficient at metabolizing both carbohydrates and fats, therefore reducing the risk of obesity,”says Lesley Bell, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NCSF-CSC, a personal trainer and brain health coach at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
4. Stress Reduction
Stress messes with our bodies, and, according to Mir Ali, MD, general and bariatric surgeon at the Memorial Care Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, stress can also lead to an increase in visceral fat.
“Stress triggers cortisol release which is one of the hormones that induces deposition of visceral fat,” Ali explains. Finding ways to reduce your stress through exercise, meditation, or yoga could help fight the buildup of visceral.
5. Sleep Increase
Finally, check how much shut-eye you’re getting. “Studies have proven that getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night may help reduce visceral fat by [up to] 26 percent,” says Bell. “Anything less than that may cause an increase in abdominal weight gain.”
How Do I Know If I Have Visceral Fat?
Since visceral fat isn’t always easy to see, it is harder to know just how much we have – and what amount is jeopardizing to our health.
How to Measure Visceral Fat
If you want to find out just how much visceral fat you have, head to the doctor’s office.
“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. Hodge recommends that “there are quality scales made by InBody and SECA that can measure visceral fat with fairly good accuracy.”
You may 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 than a man with a 29-inch to 34-inch waist, for example.
According to most health organizations, if your waist circumference is more than 35 inches (for women) or 40 inches (for men), you have abdominal obesity (visceral fat at levels that can negatively affect health). The International Diabetes Federation goes a step further, defining abdominal obesity as having a waist size greater than 31.5 inches for women and 35.5 inches for men.
What Causes Visceral Fat?
There are a number of factors that can lead to too much visceral fat.
The problem often starts in the 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.
Higher levels of “bioavailable” (a.k.a. “free”) testosterone are also associated with higher levels of visceral fat, which might explain why men tend to have more visceral fat than women, and why women may have more visceral fat after menopause.
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 Hodges.