Losing Excess Belly Fat Could Help Lengthen Your Life
Bernard Benedetto, MD - Bariatric Surgeon


The bad news about abdominal, or visceral, fat is that it builds up quickly. The good news about visceral fat is that regular moderate physical activity can prevent it, and regular vigorous physical activity can get rid of it. Losing even some excess belly fat can lengthen your life.


What is Visceral Fat?

Body fat comes in 2 forms:

  • Subcutaneous fat is a noticeable layer of fat that lies just below the skin. This is the fat that you can pinch between your fingers.
  • Visceral fat is found deeper inside the abdomen, around organs like the liver, pancreas, and intestines. Visceral fat is considered to be more dangerous because it is associated with a higher rate of heart disease and other conditions. Men tend to have more visceral fat, while women carry more subcutaneous fat.

Visceral fat often goes largely unnoticed because it is not visible to the naked eye. One way that researchers locate visceral fat is with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take a picture of the inside of the abdomen. Researchers use this picture to estimate the amount of visceral fat a person is carrying.


What Causes Visceral Fat?

Your genetic makeup is responsible for some of the amount of visceral fat you carry. Nevertheless, research shows that both your diet and your level of physical activity contribute to your level of visceral fat. People who consume large amounts of calories, and those who take part in little or no physical activity, are likely to have higher stores of visceral fat.

Short of talking to a physician into performing an MRI on your abdomen, how do you know how much of this unhealthy fat you have? Check your waistline. A trim waistline is a good indicator that you do not have a large build-up of visceral fat. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has set the following cutoff points to identify people who are at high risk of developing obesity-related diseases:

  • Women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches
  • Men with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches

If your measurements fall above these cutoff points, there is a good chance that you carry a dangerous amount of visceral fat. Even if your waist circumference does not exceed the cutoff value, making an effort to reduce your waistline can still significantly improve your health.


What are the health risks of too much abdominal fat?

Increased visceral fat, which builds up deep within the abdomen to surround organs like the liver and insulin-generating pancreas, can pose certain dangers to health. This is especially true for those with a body mass index (BMI) above 30 kg/m2. In general, men are more likely to be at risk than women of developing certain diseases, but both sexes should be aware of the dangers. Diseases associated with high levels of visceral fat include:

  • Type 2 Diabetes — Studies show that adults with large deposits of visceral fat develop lower sensitivity to insulin, known as insulin resistance. Since these people do not respond to the effects of insulin, which lowers blood sugar levels, they can develop type 2 diabetes.
  • Coronary Artery Disease — Visceral fat may promote the release of cytokines, chemicals that regulate the body’s immune response. Cytokines promote inflammation that affects the coronary arteries, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis. Extra fat around the waist also may lead to high blood pressure, lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol), and can increase the risk of stroke.
  • Metabolic Syndrome — The combination of abnormal blood sugar levels, elevated triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure is known as metabolic syndrome. The risk of developing it is higher in people with increased amounts of abdominal fat, although it has been found even in some people without extra abdominal fat.
  • Sleep Apnea — Increased visceral fat is associated with the occurrence of obstructive sleep apnea since deep abdominal fat can restrict the movement of the diaphragm and limit lung expansion.

What are the risk factors associated with developing visceral fat in the abdomen?

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a certain disease or condition. The risk factors associated with extra abdominal fat are:

  • Age—being over 45-years-old in men and over 55-years-old in women. As you age, you begin to lose muscle mass, and your body needs fewer calories According to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, men in their 50s need about 200 fewer calories daily than they do in their 30s because of this muscle loss.
  • Ethnicity—being of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian descent
  • Family history—a family history of visceral fat increases one’s likelihood of developing the condition
  • Behavior—cigarette smoking and lack of physical activity contribute to poor overall health.

How do you get rid of visceral fat?

Some of these risks factors can be altered with modifications in diet and lifestyle. Research shows that people who replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in their diets typically have lower levels of visceral fat. Polyunsaturated fats are found in sunflower, corn, and soybean oils, as well as in fish.

In addition, just exercising moderately—doing things such as walking, swimming, or playing tennis—for 30-60 minutes on most days of the week helps prevent visceral fat from building up. Even better, regular exercise can reduce visceral belly fat that already has accumulated.

As with any major lifestyle or health change, check with your physician when beginning a regimen. Weight loss (bariatric) surgery may also be an option for you depending on your individual health situation.


Sources:
U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Weight-Control Information Network