You know that excess fat anywhere isn’t a good thing. But the fat that’s buried deep inside your abdomen is especially dangerous. This type of fat, called visceral fat, lies beneath your muscles and surrounds your abdominal organs. It’s different than the noticeable, flabby fat that lies directly under your skin, called subcutaneous fat. What’s more, you don’t even have to be overweight to have visceral fat.
Research has found that too much visceral fat increases the chances of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and colon cancer. Visceral fat is considered a health threat because of its close proximity to the vein that carries blood to the liver. Substances released from the fat, such as fatty acids, have an easy travel route to the liver where they adversely affect cholesterol levels and insulin resistance.
You can’t see visceral fat. The only way to know for sure how much you have is by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan, although scientists are studying other methods of detection such as a blood test. Other than getting an MRI or a CT scan, your waist circumference can be a pretty good indicator of whether you may carry visceral fat underneath excess subcutaneous fat: If your waistline is 33 inches or more, no matter what your weight, you may be at an increased risk for health problems. But, remember: You don’t need a wide midsection to have visceral fat.
Although genetics play a large part in where fat ends up on your body, middle-aged women are at particular risk for expanding waistlines and visceral fat, thanks to hormonal changes after menopause. It’s also common in people who aren’t physically active.
Exercise. Unlike stubborn subcutaneous belly fat, studies show that visceral fat can be easily reduced by moderate-intensity exercise, such as running, biking or brisk walking. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week. Weight lifting can help, too.
When it comes to diet, watch portion sizes; eat lots of fruits and vegetables; and avoid trans and saturated fats, the biggest contributors to high stores of visceral fat.