Body fat stores in different ways, some fat may be around the buttocks and thighs, and other fat may store around the abdominal area. Depending on where fat is stored, may be affecting your health. Visceral fat produces substances that can cause serious health consequences. Let’s explore how visceral fat vs subcutaneous fat and how it may be affecting your health.
What is the difference between visceral fat and subcutaneous fat?
Visceral fat is distributed around the abdominal area and in spaces around your organs. Subcutaneous fat is located between the skin and the outer abdominal wall, and on thighs and buttocks. How we store fat and fat types are not created equal. Subcutaneous fat is distributed differently and may even have protective qualities for health. Where visceral fat is linked to various chronic health problems, heart disease and death (2).
What is Visceral fat?
Visceral fat that is also known as “active fat”, and it wraps around your organs including your intestines, kidneys, liver and heart. It is predicted that 10% of body fat we store is visceral fat, and 90% is normally subcutaneous fat. Women who reach middle age are more at risk of increased visceral fat, even more so than men. Even skinny people can have higher than normal rates of visceral fat. Because of that, being skinny doesn’t mean your healthy.
What is subcutaneous fat?
Layered under the skin surface, subcutaneous fat is that fat that feels soft when you poke it. Located around the buttocks, belly and thighs, subcutaneous fat is less dangerous, and can actually release beneficial molecules (1). Subcutaneous fats release a number of beneficial molecules that may suppress appetite, burn stored fat, protects against diabetes, and has anti-inflammatory effects of vessel linings. Subcutaneous fat may also help regulate fats and sugars, helping to protect against diabetes (1).
What determines where fat is stored?
How fat is stored depends on your age, birth weight, age, hormones and genes.
What are the dangers of visceral fat?
Visceral fat cells are biologically “active”, meaning that this particular fat cell secretes hormones that can affect other tissues and generally detrimental to your health. Because visceral fat cells make proteins called cytokines, they can trigger inflammation leading to a higher risk of health conditions and diseases. As the level of visceral fat increases, so does the release of molecules that affect your health.
Risk of visceral fat and how it affects your health
- Increases inflammation within the body
- Increases risk of heart disease
- Releases a protein that increases blood pressure
- Increases insulin resistance
- Effects on cardiovascular disease
- People above the age of 40 with higher amounts of abdominal fat are three times more likely to develop dementia (1)
- Women with higher waist measurements (more than 37 inches) are at a 37% increased risk of developing asthma
- Premenopausal women with central fat obesity are at increased risk of breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer is increased 3 fold in people with high visceral fat (3)
How to measure your own visceral fat percentage
For every 2 inches of additional waist size increases heart disease risk by 10%. It is important to have a rough idea of where your visceral fat stores are. There are a few ways to do this.
- What body type are you? Apple-shaped people tend to store fat around their abdominal area and may have a higher percentage of visceral fat. Where pear-shaped people store more fat as subcutaneous fat around buttocks and thighs.
- Waist-to-hip ratios where you measure your hip and waist and calculate using waist circumference/hip circumference. This calculation gives you a ratio, Men should be below 1 and women below .8 . If your calculation is above this, your at increased risk of having more than desirable amounts of visceral fat around your organs.
- Waist circumference is an easy and quick way to check your risk. Measure your waist, at belly-button level, Men need to have a measurement of less than 102cm (40 inches), and women less than 89cm (35 inches).
How to reduce vicseral fat stores
The good news is that visceral fat responds well to diet and exercise. Visceral fat is more readily utilised and responds better than subcutaneous fat to diet and exercise. Some changes you can make to improve your visceral fat stores include
- exercise at least 30 minutes per day, walking is perfect is it burns higher amounts of fat
- Eating a balanced, natural diet
- Quit smoking as the more you smoke, the more abdominal fat you will store!
- Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Higher levels of stress may increase visceral fat stores. See my blog on how stress affects health here.
- reduce alcohol consumption
- Get enough sleep as getting less than 5 hours per night stored more visceral fat (1).
It is possible to get a MRI scan to determine your visceral fat percentage. These are quite expensive but the most accurate.
How can we further reduce visceral fat
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Taking aim at belly fat. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat#:~:text=Visceral%20fat%20lies%20in%20the,and%20the%20outer%20abdominal%20wall.
- Science Daily. (2019). Why is visceral fat worse than subcutaneous fat? Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160425161349.htm
- Diabetes (UK). Visceral Fat: Active Fat. Retrieved from https://www.diabetes.co.uk/body/visceral-fat.html
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