Excess visceral fat is linked to high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and more.
The basics, diet and exercise, are one way to reduce excess visceral fat.
However, the most effective way to get rid of visceral fat is through bariatric or weight-loss surgery.
This article was medically reviewed by Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Melissa Rifkin Nutrition LLC.
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Visceral fat is a type of body fat that accumulates in the abdomen, around the belly area. Unlike subcutaneous fat, the type of body fat that’s stored just beneath the skin, visceral fat is stored deeper, underneath the abdominal muscles, around your abdominal organs like the stomach, liver, and intestines.
Having too much visceral fat can increase your risk of developing some very serious health problems. For example, visceral fat is linked to high blood pressure, sleep apnea, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, according to Michael Russo, MD, bariatric surgeon at MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center. Here’s what you need to know about what causes visceral fat and measures you can take to get rid of it and improve your health.
How to tell if you have too much visceral fat
You can neither see nor feel visceral fat because it’s stored under the muscle. Therefore, the quickest way to measure if you have too much is by calculating your BMI, or body mass index.
According to the CDC, a BMI of 25 to 29.9 is classified as overweight, and 30 and above is considered obese. In either of these situations, you’re likely to have a high amount of visceral fat.
Another way to measure amounts of visceral fat at home is to check your waist circumference. According to Harvard Medical School, you’re at high risk of excess visceral fat if you’re a man with a waist circumference of over 40 inches or a woman with a waist circumference over 35 inches or more.
What causes visceral fat
Visceral fat is accumulated over time and isn’t something we’re born with.
“What people are born with is a genetic predisposition to become hormonally imbalanced, and then when you add the Western diet, which includes a high percentage of processed and refined carbohydrates as well as liquid sugars, it can cause hormonal switches to be turned on, which then causes your body to want to accumulate more and more fat,” says Russo. “It’s like a thermostat being turned up.”
Genetics and diet play the biggest role in accumulating visceral fat, says Russo. Of course, you can’t change the fact that you’re genetically predisposed, but you can change your diet.
Aside from a genetic predisposition and poor diet, other causes of accumulating visceral fat over time are:
Consuming more calories than you burn due to lack of exercise.
General aging, since muscle mass decreases with age and can make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight for your height.
Estrogen levels dropping is a cause for increased visceral fat in older women, since estrogen plays a role in fat distribution.
Excessive stress can cause increased storage of visceral fat likely related to cortisol levels.
How to get rid of visceral fat
Russo says the best non-surgical way to reduce visceral fat is lifestyle changes including diet and exercise. However, when it comes to visceral fat, changes in diet are more crucial.
“Diet is about 80% of the equation. Exercise is also very important – getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day, every day,” says Russo. The type of exercise isn’t as important as focusing on just getting your heart rate up and working up a sweat.
If someone isn’t succeeding with lifestyle changes, surgery is another option. “The most effective way to reduce visceral fat if someone is carrying a large amount of it is bariatric or weight loss surgery, which alters you hormonally to a more normal hormonal profile, so your body doesn’t want to carry excess fat anymore. It’s like turning down the thermostat,” says Russo.
Other surgical options that aren’t quite as effective as bariatric surgery, include balloon-based therapies, which can help limit the amount of food you eat by making you fuller faster.
As for diet, Russo recommends a medically supervised diet program for the best results. The more effective diets for visceral fat reduction are usually Atkins or keto-type diets, because they are high in protein and low in carbohydrates, according to Russo.
Outside of following a restrictive diet like those previously mentioned, individuals can monitor total calorie intake, limit refined sugar, and increase the number of lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables they consume.
It can be tricky to tell if you’re losing visceral fat, since you’ll likely be losing subcutaneous fat too, following these programs. Russo says keeping track of your BMI and waist circumference are the best way to tell if you are losing visceral fat.
Actively working towards losing visceral fat and living a more active lifestyle will benefit you in the long run. It’s not just about a slimmer appearance – it’s about reducing your risk of developing some very dangerous health conditions.
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