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What You Need to Know About Visceral Fat

Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Published in Weight Loss

7 min read

November 2, 2021
a person measuring their waist
a person measuring their waist

There’s no way to escape fat. Don’t worry though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Even if you’re extremely fit, it’s not just normal to have some level of fat on your body; it’s healthy. This is because the calories we eat eventually become energy, which ultimately becomes fat. Still, like much else in life, not all fat is created equal. 

Did you know that there were two types of fat? There’s subcutaneous fat, which is fat that sits just below your skin. And then there’s visceral fat, which lives in the abdomen around your internal organs. We’re going to focus on visceral fat, tell you how it affects your body, and what you can do about it. 

What is Visceral Fat?

a person measuring their waist

Visceral fat, the type that you find in your abdomen, is also known as intra-abdominal fat. You’d recognize it by one of its most telling signs and something we usually see as a cosmetic issue—an expanding waistline. The organs that this fat surrounds include the liver, intestines, and pancreas. 

If you’re overweight, you may not be able to identify your visceral fat immediately because a thick layer of subcutaneous fat can mask it. The reason people look to the stomach for telltale signs of visceral fat is because there’s no viscera in the limbs. Any fat found on your arms or legs is subcutaneous fat. 

While too much of any kind of fat is bad for you, there’s a reason you should know about your visceral fat. It’s because it can cause glucose intolerance and put you at higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

How to Measure Visceral Fat

a person measuring visceral fat

There’s the ‘pinch test’ with calipers, there’s BMI measurements—how do you pick what to use to measure visceral fat? The best way is with an MRI scan or a CT scan. But for most people, this is not a practical way to check your fat levels, especially if you’re looking to do so at home. Instead, a simple waistline measure, a hip to waist ratio calculation, and a BMI measurement (although there are flaws with BMI) can show you whether you’re carrying more or less of the usual amount of total fat as visceral fat. 

If you can measure visceral fat or get a general idea of your visceral fat percentage, it’s important to know where you stand. Although estimates vary, around 10% is a good reference point for the typical amount of fat stored around the viscera. 

A good option to measure visceral fat that’s becoming more popular of late, is something known as Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA. You need to go to a clinic that has the ability to perform these scans, but if you have the opportunity to do so you should. They’re seen as some of the most accurate techniques to measure visceral fat.  

Remember, since visceral fat is easy to put on but can be difficult for most people to lose, it’s essential to identify excess fat and address it as early as possible. 

Visceral Fat and Insulin Resistance

a doctor showing a card with insulin written on it

Another name for visceral fat is 'active fat.' The ‘active’ hits at its role in the endocrine system, which tells the body how and when to store and use energy. One of the most well-characterized molecules related to visceral fat is called retinol binding protein 4 (RBP4), an adipokine, a signaling molecule secreted by adipose tissue or fat tissue. 

Although this molecule is mainly secreted by the liver, it’s also secreted by adipocytes or fat cells. It then signals nearby cells when there is a decrease in blood glucose levels. In mouse models of diabetes and in humans with obesity and type 2 diabetes, blood RBP4 levels are elevated. Why does any of this matter? It’s because higher levels of this molecule may be related to inflammation and insulin resistance, which can, in turn, cause elevated blood glucose levels, as glucose will be trapped in the blood if it is unable to enter the cells.

Because it’s deeper in your body, people with more visceral fat are at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes. If you have a lot of abdominal fat—especially visceral fat—you have a higher risk of getting type 2 diabetes because insulin doesn’t work as well in that area of your body.

Why Should I Worry About Insulin Resistance?

a spoon of sugar and dices spelling insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is a key predictor when it comes to your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. High glucose levels within your blood metabolize, becoming what’s known as advanced glycation end-products or AGEs. These are the result of proteins or lipids becoming glycated or bound to glucose trapped in your blood. 

Some of these AGEs, like single amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) bound to glucose, can leave the body through the urine. However, many of the more complicated AGEs are too large to be filtered through the kidneys. These end up becoming metabolized by kidney cells. This process damages the kidney cells, reducing the ability of the kidney to process these AGEs, forming a positive feedback loop that can lead to permanent organ damage. 

This is just one example of how persistently high blood glucose levels can harm your body over time. Insulin resistance can wreak havoc on almost every organ in your body, and is also linked to heart disease, hypertension, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. And although not all harm of this kind is reversible, you can either prevent or delay a lot of it with proactive and thoughtful management, so why shouldn’t you? It’s a good idea to be proactive so you can address the issue before it starts to affect your health.

What Can I Do to Prevent Visceral Fat Buildup?

trio of people running outdoors

There’s no one-size-fits-all for managing your health and no specific steps to combat visceral fat buildup directly. However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to prevent it. It’s a good idea to use these as a guideline to tailor to meet your specific needs. Consider asking a health professional, like a dietitian or a doctor, to help out. Some of these general wellness tips can help you start optimizing your fat levels and keeping your body healthy:

  • Get moving! While this will depend on your body type and goals, around 150 minutes of exercise a week (and remember to avoid sitting for too long at a stretch!) is a good goal. You can spread this out however you like, but think of it as exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  • Eat a diet of whole foods. Avoid consuming refined sugars and processed foods as much as possible. 
  • Treat any underlying health conditions that can predispose you to higher fat levels.
  • Proactively manage your stress levels since stress hormones can raise blood sugar levels. 
  • Reduce the amount of alcohol you consume and try to quit smoking if you're a smoker, as these are both inflammatory and can adversely affect your organs. 
  • Sleep enough, and sleep well. Issues like obstructive sleep apnea and lousy sleep hygiene can lead to fat buildup, so prevent and manage them as much as possible.
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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.