We often associate poor health and chronic disease with overt signs like obesity, but one of the biggest indicators of your cardiometabolic health might be hidden a little further beneath the surface.
Visceral fat can’t necessarily be seen by the naked eye, but research shows that it may cause a world of problems down the line.
So what is visceral fat, and how can you go about losing it?
What is visceral fat?
Visceral fat refers to the fat surrounding the organs in your abdomen, which is not the same as the subcutaneous fat found right beneath the skin.
A reasonable amount of visceral fat is necessary for cushioning your organs. However, having excess visceral fat can have significant implications for your health, as its presence has been linked to the development of several health conditions, including insulin resistance, heart disease, and even some cancers.
It is also a component of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of factors including insulin resistance, obesity, and hypertension. When paired with two or more of these other factors, a high visceral fat content can indicate that you are at an increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Visceral fat can be especially telling of further health problems down the road for several reasons, including the fact that visceral fat is biologically active and can release potentially inflammatory hormones like cytokines.
The location of visceral fat near your vital organs also presents a serious problem—it can release free fatty acids directly to the liver, which can compromise cholesterol panels and potentially lead to insulin resistance.
What can cause someone to gain visceral fat?
The factors that cause excess visceral fat are similar to those of subcutaneous fat. Unhealthy lifestyle factors like low physical activity levels and a poor diet can lead to excess visceral fat gain.
How much visceral fat is too much?
Unlike excess subcutaneous fat, you can have too much visceral fat even if your height and weight indicate that you are at a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI).
Remember, your visceral fat is in your abdominal cavity surrounding your organs, not directly underneath your skin. In other words, you can visually appear to be physically healthy and at an ideal body weight while still carrying too much fat tissue in your midsection.
You can estimate the amount of visceral fat in your body by measuring your waist or doing a caliper test, but this is not an exact science. The best way to determine your body fat percentages is by taking a body composition test. These tests can not only calculate your overallbody fat percentage but also break that measurement down into your subcutaneous and visceral fat so you can have a better idea of where your body composition stands.
How hard is it to lose visceral fat?
Just as you can’t choose where to gain weight, you also don’t have much control over where you lose it. There is no such thing as “spot reduction” when it comes to weight loss, so you can’t target your visceral fat on its own while making a weight loss attempt.
However, the good news is that as long as you follow a disciplined diet and exercise routine, you should be able to move both your subcutaneous and visceral fat stores into acceptable ranges.
And the best part? It looks like visceral fat is actually easier to lose than subcutaneous fat! So if you’re making a healthy weight loss attempt, there’s a great chance that you’ll be able to reduce that hidden fat.
How to lose visceral fat
At its core, fat loss happens when you are at a caloric deficit. Everyone has a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the minimum number of calories your body needs to carry out its basic functions. Stored fat tissue is a valuable energy source when you aren’t eating enough calories to support your activity.
So when you are at a caloric deficit (i.e., using more energy than you take in), your body begins to break down your fat stores, resulting in weight loss!
Your body composition plays a vital role in your BMR (basal metabolic rate) as well. Muscle tissue requires more energy to maintain than fat tissue. When you focus on losing fat and gaining muscle, your Lean Body Mass value increases, which also means you burn more calories every day.
Here are some of the core tenants of losing visceral fat and improving your body composition:
Get your heart pumping.
Incorporating cardio into your fitness routine is a great way to burn calories, especially if you’re doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Unlike other “traditional” forms of cardio like running and biking, in which you aim for a moderately-high heart rate, the goal of HIIT workouts is to keep your heart rate high the entire time with high-intensity circuits. This means that it’s a great workout for expending energy (a.k.a. burning calories!) Research has concluded that participating in HIIT workouts is an effective way to promote fat loss, both visceral and subcutaneous, as compared to other workout plans.
Try adding some high-intensity circuit training into your fitness routine a couple of days a week to maximize your heart health and burn fat.
Incorporate resistance training
In addition to cardiovascular activity, high-intensity resistance training also proves to be an effective way to lose visceral fat. Remember, the more muscle you have, the more calories your body uses, so using resistance training to build your muscles is a great way to get your body to burn more fat every day.
In fact, it’s so effective that a randomized trial showed that people who participated in high-intensity resistance training lost visceral fat at a faster rate as compared to others.
Try adding some weighted workouts to your fitness routine and do your resistance training in circuits to keep the volume and intensity high throughout the entire workout.
Practice responsible portion control
Losing fat does not always have to be all about severe restriction—just proper portion control. If you’re eating the right amount of food for weight loss, you don’t necessarily have to cut out your favorites completely—just minimize the amount.
This is why it’s especially helpful to keep an eye on your calories if you’re looking to lose weight since you can easily go overboard and eat more calories than you need if you aren’t keeping track.
Planning your food ahead of time can make a big difference in managing your portion control. One study found that participants who ate prepackaged meals were able to lose more visceral fat than participants who were able to choose their foods.
The old adage holds true here: “everything in moderation”. Try meal prepping ahead of time and use smaller plates to manage your portion sizes. It may also be helpful to practice mindful eating techniques like slowing down and savoring your food while you’re eating so that your stomach can “catch up” to your mouth and you can pay attention to when you’re feeling full.
Eat more veggies
Diet quality matters just as much as portion sizes when it comes to losing visceral fat. Eating a wide variety of vegetables means that you are eating more micronutrients, including soluble fiber, manganese, potassium, magnesium, vitamin K, folic acid, and pantothenic acid, all of which help reduce visceral fat.
Make getting your veggies a priority in every meal, and be sure to vary them to maximize your nutrient intake.
Avoid trans fats
On the subject of foods to avoid in your diet as you make a weight loss attempt, you may want to take a look at the kinds of fat you are eating.
Trans fats, like those found in margarine and fried foods, are very unhealthy, and studies have shown that diets high in trans fats may be linked to increased body fat and waist circumference.
However, it’s important to note that dietary fat is still an important nutrient, so you shouldn’t cut them out completely. Instead, choose healthy fats instead like olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids.
Having a healthy body composition is just as important as being in a healthy weight range. Adopt these healthy habits to lose excess visceral fat and decrease your risk of developing chronic health conditions down the line.
Erica Digap is a freelance writer specializing in nutrition science, fitness, and health. After receiving her BSc in Clinical Nutrition and working in the corporate diet industry, she decided to set forth and use her experience to inspire readers to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes, one healthy meal and workout at a time.