- Visceral fat tissue is stored beneath your abdominal wall, lining your organs.
- This type of fat is more metabolically active than other fat, releasing pro-inflammatory chemicals and hormones, and therefore poses a potential threat to your metabolic health.
- Conditions associated with visceral fat include metabolic syndrome, heart disease, insulin resistance, and fatty liver.
- Prioritizing sleep, reducing stress, getting in some moderate to high intensity exercise, and following a low-carb diet are all lifestyle changes you can make to reduce abdominal obesity.
ou've likely heard that excess weight around your middle can pose serious health problems, but why exactly does waist size matter so much?
Your body has several different types of fat tissue, and the type that causes abdominal obesity is referred to as visceral fat. This tissue behaves differently than other types of fat tissue in your body and therefore poses unique health risks.
In this article, you'll learn:
- What visceral fat is, and what makes it unique
- The dangers that come with excess body fat around the middle
- What lifestyle changes you can focus on to lose excess visceral fat and improve overall health markers
What Is Visceral Fat?
Most of the fat on your body is subcutaneous fat, which is a type of fat that lies just below your skin. Subcutaneous fat is the soft, pillow-like fat that you feel and see when you put on some extra pounds. While potentially aesthetically unpleasing, subcutaneous fat is generally harmless.
Visceral fat, on the other hand, lies beneath your abdominal cavity, lining your organs, and is associated with a range of health issues. You can't touch visceral fat like you can subcutaneous fat, so it can be more challenging to know if you have excess visceral fat deposits. With that being said, a larger waist circumference indicates that you're holding extra adipose tissue within your abdomen.
The Dangers of Visceral Fat
Visceral fat, also referred to as abdominal fat, is metabolically active, producing its own hormones, inflammatory compounds, and other chemical mediators. As such, this type of fat can contribute to the onset and progression of several health imbalances.
Some of the primary dangers that come with visceral fat include:
Metabolic syndrome is not one disease state but rather a cluster of different conditions that occur together, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), and increased waistline – AKA visceral fat. These conditions increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type two diabetes.
While visceral fat alone likely won't cause metabolic syndrome, it is a contributing factor that needs to be watched. It should also be noted that the accumulation of visceral fat, in general, indicates that something is awry metabolically.
As mentioned, visceral fat is a highly metabolically active tissue that can release proinflammatory compounds such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). When inflammation is high, it results in dysfunction in your blood vessel walls, making it more challenging to dilate as normal. This process is called endothelial dysfunction, and it causes the narrowing of the blood vessels in your heart.
As your blood vessels narrow, it sets the stage for plaque formation in your artery walls (also known as atherosclerosis) due to the buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. This continues to wear on your arteries and sets the stage for cardiovascular disease.
Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
Visceral fat not only increases the release of inflammatory chemicals but also inhibits the release of adiponectin, a hormone produced by fat cells that helps reduce inflammation and assists your cells in their sensitivity to the hormone insulin.
Insulin is a crucial hormone for shuttling blood glucose into cells, where it can be used as fuel. In this way, visceral fat can set the stage for insulin resistance and diabetes by altering your cells' sensitivity to insulin and potentially driving high blood sugar and high insulin levels.
Furthermore, studies show that visceral fat releases fatty acids and proinflammatory chemicals directly into the liver via the portal vein, which can further drive hepatic (liver) insulin resistance[4,5].
Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Having excess fat in your liver not only impacts your cells' sensitivity to insulin but also sets the stage for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is a condition where your liver accumulates fat. Some people have NAFLD with no further complications, making the condition relatively harmless. When inflammation is present, however, liver damage can start to occur.
And as you know by now, visceral fat doesn't just send fatty acids to your liver, but it also sends inflammatory chemicals along with it.
In a study assessing the relationship between visceral fat and liver disease, researchers found that visceral fat directly increases liver inflammation and fibrosis, setting the stage for cirrhosis or potentially liver cancer[6,7].
4 Ways To Shrink Your Waistline For Optimal Health
Losing visceral fat will happen naturally as you lose weight. However, since this type of fat is highly metabolically active, it can take a bit of finesse to release it fully. Below are some weight loss techniques that will not only target subcutaneous fat but also assists in burning away unwanted visceral fat stores.
One of the driving factors that pushes your body to store visceral fat is the stress hormone cortisol. Studies show that the higher your cortisol, the more likely you are to store fat around your abdomen.
The exact reason or mechanism behind this isn't quite clear, but there does seem to be involvement with your HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis).
When your HPA axis is activated, it increases the release of stress hormones (including cortisol), which can result in increased hunger and depressed metabolism – two factors contributing to weight gain. At the same time, your visceral fat has more receptors for glucocorticoids (cortisol), which would increase fat distribution around the middle when cortisol is present.
Since cortisol is released when you're under stress, the best way to mitigate cortisol is to relax and calm your mind and body.
One powerful technique to try is diaphragmatic breathing:
Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking a deep, slow inhale through your nose and a long exhale out your mouth. The key is to breathe into your belly, as opposed to your chest. An example would be a five-second inhale through your nose, followed by an eight-second exhale through your mouth. This type of breathing sends a message to your nervous system that you are safe, shifting you into parasympathetic "rest and digest" mode.
Other ways to relax and relieve stress include:
- Playing with your pets
- Spending time with friends and loved ones
- Engaging in a hobby or creative project
Engage In Physical Activity
Exercise is an important factor in any weight-loss regimen, but research shows that moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise is especially helpful in targeting visceral belly fat.
One study found that even without dietary intervention, people that exercised regularly at a high to moderate intensity were able to shed visceral fat tissue. Some examples of high to moderate-intensity aerobics include:
- Running or jogging
- HIIT workouts (high-intensity interval training)
- Swimming laps
- Using a stair climber
- Tabata training
If you're not a huge fan of cardio workouts, that's okay too. Physical activity of any kind can help to lower cortisol, which in turn will shift your body away from storing visceral fat. In fact, there is evidence that simply standing or walking more throughout the day could positively affect visceral fat loss[11,12].
Try a Low-Carb Diet
Cutting out processed, refined oils and carbohydrates from your diet is essential if you want to lose weight. However, research shows that specifically sticking to a low-carb diet may be the way to go if you want to target visceral adipose tissue.
In fact, low-carb diets not only help to burn off abdominal fat, but they also help with other markers for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. For instance, research shows low-carb eating can improve insulin sensitivity and obesity, reduce blood triglycerides, and normalize cholesterol levels[14,15].
Prioritize Your Sleep
Another lifestyle factor that can contribute to visceral fat is poor sleep.
When you're sleep deprived, it messes with your hormones and can push you to overeat by increasing your appetite and creating cravings for foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories.
Specifically, studies show that sleep restriction is associated with increased levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and decreased levels of leptin (the hormone that lets your brain know you're satisfied). Sleep also decreases insulin sensitivity and can cause an increase in inflammatory chemicals.
Furthermore, poor sleep increases your cortisol levels, which further drives fat storage around your middle.
Abdominal obesity caused by visceral fat puts you at a higher risk for all metabolic complications, including heart disease, insulin resistance, fatty liver, and diabetes.
Luckily, the same steps that you would take to burn away visceral fat are the steps you can take to improve overall health and well-being.
Beginning with your diet, research shows that keeping carbs low is ideal for burning off visceral fat.
Moving into physical activity, while low-intensity exercise and strength training have their place if you want to target visceral fat, high to moderate-intensity aerobic training is the way to go.
And finally, sleep and stress must be addressed if you want to lose your visceral fat for good. These two often go hand-in-hand, so you can think of them as one. Reducing your stress levels will help you sleep better, and life always feels less stressful when you get a good night of sleep.
- Paley, Carole A., and Mark I. Johnson. "Abdominal obesity and metabolic syndrome: exercise as medicine?." BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation 10.1 (2018): 1-8.
- Hamdy, Osama, Sriurai Porramatikul, and Ebaa Al-Ozairi. "Metabolic obesity: the paradox between visceral and subcutaneous fat." Current diabetes reviews 2.4 (2006): 367-373.
- Rytka, Julia M., et al. "The portal theory supported by venous drainage–selective fat transplantation." Diabetes 60.1 (2011): 56-63.
- Item, Flurin, and Daniel Konrad. "Visceral fat and metabolic inflammation: the portal theory revisited." Obesity Reviews 13 (2012): 30-39.
- Mirza, M. S. "Obesity, visceral fat, and NAFLD: querying the role of adipokines in the progression of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease." International Scholarly Research Notices 2011 (2011).
- van der Poorten, David, et al. "Visceral fat: a key mediator of steatohepatitis in metabolic liver disease." Hepatology 48.2 (2008): 449-457.
- Moyer, Anne E., et al. "Stress‐induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women." Obesity research 2.3 (1994): 255-262.
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- Vissers, Dirk, et al. "The effect of exercise on visceral adipose tissue in overweight adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis." PloS one 8.2 (2013): e56415.
- Ando, Shinto, et al. "The association of daily physical activity behaviors with visceral fat." Obesity Research & Clinical Practice 14.6 (2020): 531-535.
- De Nys, Len, et al. "The effects of physical activity on cortisol and sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Psychoneuroendocrinology (2022): 105843.
- Sasakabe, Tae, et al. "Association of decrease in carbohydrate intake with reduction in abdominal fat during 3-month moderate low-carbohydrate diet among non-obese Japanese patients with type 2 diabetes." Metabolism 64.5 (2015): 618-625.
- Gower, Barbara A., and Amy M. Goss. "A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes." The Journal of nutrition 145.1 (2015): 177S-183S.
- Sharman, Matthew J., et al. "Very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets affect fasting lipids and postprandial lipemia differently in overweight men." The Journal of nutrition 134.4 (2004): 880-885.
- Hairston, Kristen G., et al. "Sleep duration and five-year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS family study." Sleep 33.3 (2010): 289-295.
- Cooper, Christopher B., et al. "Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review." BMJ open sport & exercise medicine 4.1 (2018): e000392.
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