When we start to pack on the belly fat, it can be unpleasant. But more importantly, it can be dangerous. The scary thing about visceral fat is that you can’t necessarily always see it. The fat layer underneath the skin is called subcutaneous fat. But the fat that surrounds your organs is called visceral fat or visceral adiposity.
This is the type of fat that is associated with cardiovascular disease. This means an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
The good news is that there are ways to lose visceral fat. Let’s discuss visceral fat and some solutions for it.
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What is visceral fat?
Visceral fat is extra fat tissue that accumulates in the abdominal area. Contributing factors to visceral fat include age, gender, genetics, and ethnicity.
Mechanisms that contribute to extra visceral fat storage include sex hormones, endocannabinoids, growth hormone, dietary fructose, and local cortisol (stress hormone) production in abdominal fat tissues.
Certain characteristics of fat tissue make it a higher risk for cardiometabolic risk. These characteristics include the following:
- Number of fat cells
- Size of fat cells
- Fat responsiveness
- Fat storage capacity
- Inflammatory cytokine production
How do you know if you have it?
So how do you know if you have visceral fat? Usually, it’s a combination of measuring your waist circumference and looking at your body mass index. This can help to identify and manage visceral fat, especially if you are overweight or obese and at high risk of cardiometabolic disease.
There is visceral fat, and then there is subcutaneous fat. Both are present in the abdomen, but there are differences between the two. These include anatomical, cellular, molecular, physiological, clinical, and prognostic differences.
Visceral adipose tissue is mostly in the mesentery and the omentum parts of the abdomen. Visceral fat tissue drains through what we call portal circulation into the liver. This fat tissue is more cellular, vascular and has more nerves running to it.
How can it help?
Visceral fat tissue also has more inflammatory and immune cells compared to subcutaneous abdominal fat tissue. This fat tissue also has less fat cell differentiating capacity and a greater percentage of large fat depots.
There are more glucocorticoid and testosterone receptors in visceral fat tissue than in subcutaneous fat tissue. Visceral fat tissue cells are more metabolically active. They are also more sensitive to lipolysis (which is fat breakdown). And they have less insulin sensitivity than subcutaneous fat tissue cells.
Visceral fat tissue has more of a capacity to create free fatty acids and to uptake glucose. Visceral fat tissue is more sensitive to adrenergic stimulation. This is different from subcutaneous fat tissue, which can absorb circulating free fatty acids and triglycerides. Visceral fat tissue has a greater prediction of death than subcutaneous fat tissue.
Why is visceral fat dangerous?
Not all forms of obesity are equally as dangerous. In fact, some people with higher percentages of body fat are at lower risk for certain obesity-related complications. So why is this?
Data shows that the physical location of the fat dramatically influences the risk of disease. Excess visceral fat, compared to subcutaneous adipose tissue, is linked to greater metabolic risks.
The inflammation of visceral fat is provoked by dying fat cells. This is what links metabolic syndrome to heart disease.
High amounts of visceral fat are related to psoriasis. One study looked at visceral fat’s association with psoriasis and cardiometabolic diseases. Researchers measured abdominal organs fat using computerized tomography, which is the standard gold method of measuring visceral fat.
The study found that visceral fat is associated with psoriasis. Psoriasis was also found to be linked with type 2 diabetes. This suggests that visceral fat plays a key role in psoriasis-associated cardiometabolic diseases.
Visceral fat is a significant factor in the development of Crohn’s disease. One study looked at 97 patients with Crohn’s disease who had ulcers. They found that patients with healed ulcers had significantly less visceral fat area before treatment.
They also had a lower mesenteric fat index, which is another indicator of visceral fat. There was no significant difference in the subcutaneous fat area. Less visceral fat means faster mucosal healing.
The researchers concluded that there is an association between higher amounts of visceral fat and slower mucosal healing. This shows that patients with Crohn’s disease may need higher doses of medication earlier if they have lots of visceral fat.
Research shows that higher visceral fat is associated with lower cognition in children. One study looked at the relationship between visceral fat tissue and achievement and cognitive function among children.
Children with abdominal obesity between the ages of eight and nine participated in the study by completing cognitive and academic tests. Children of normal body weight were in the control group.
This study showed that children with obesity had significantly lower performance on reading and math tests. Subcutaneous fat tissue did not play a role, only visceral fat tissue. Higher visceral fat was associated with poorer intellectual abilities and cognitive performance. This includes activities like thinking ability and cognitive efficiency.
These results show that visceral fat tissue is related to cognition among children with obesity. The researchers concluded that visceral fat tissue is dangerous as well as detrimental to obese children’s intellectual and cognitive functioning.
Fatty liver disease
Visceral fat tissue is associated with fatty liver disease. When free fatty acids are released from obese visceral fat cells, they go to the liver through the portal vein.
This happens in large quantities. In the liver, free fatty acids accumulate and form ectopic fat. And this is what leads to the development of the non alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Visceral fat can also lead to the following dangerous health conditions:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Cardiovascular disease
- Hypertriglyceridemia (high triglycerides in the blood)
- Increased free fatty acid availability
- Fat tissue release of proinflammatory cytokines
- Liver insulin resistance and systemic inflammation
- Increased synthesis and secretion of liver very-low-density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”)
- Reduced clearance of triglyceride-rich lipoproteins
- Presence of small, dense low-density lipoprotein (called LDL for short) particles
- Reduced HDL cholesterol levels (“good cholesterol”)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Higher blood pressure
- Lower quality of life
- Increased risk of death
How can you reduce visceral fat?
Certain medications can help to reduce visceral fat. Thiazolidinediones, estrogen replacement in postmenopausal women and testosterone replacement in androgen deficient men can reduce visceral fat.
They do this by modulating body fat distribution and cardiometabolic risk. However, these medications come along with some serious side effects, which is why many people question their use, especially in the long term.
There is a class of diabetes medications called SGLT2 inhibitors. These include the following medications:
One study looked at 132 outpatients with type 2 diabetes and evaluated them for six months. They found that these antidiabetic drugs significantly reduced visceral fat area. In fact, they were able to shrink visceral fat area from 108.4 centimeters squared to 94.5 centimeters squared!
Lifestyle interventions such as exercise lead to weight loss that helps to mobilize visceral fat. One meta-analysis study looked at the effects of exercise on visceral fat in obese children and adolescents. T
he subjects in this study were obese, between the ages of 6 and 19, and had visceral fat. Subjects who participated in the exercise program effectively reduced visceral fat. This was a combined physical activity program of both aerobic exercise and resistance training and lasted 12 months.
Another study looked at exercise’s effects on reducing intraabdominal fat in obese young women. There were 43 participants. The subjects did either high-intensity interval training, moderate-intensity continuous training, or no training.
After high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity continuous training, there were reductions in both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. There was no change in the control group.
The researchers concluded that high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity continuous training reduce visceral fat. However, high-intensity interval training is more time-efficient. This is why it tends to be the predominant strategy for controlling obesity.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids
One study looked at visceral fat accumulation and body composition after consuming saturated fatty acids or polyunsaturated fatty acids. This was a double-blind, randomized trial in 39 young subjects of normal weight. They ate muffins high in saturated fatty acids (palm oil) or omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (sunflower oil) for seven weeks.
Researchers measured liver fat, visceral fat tissue, abdominal subcutaneous fat tissue, total fat tissue, pancreatic fat, and lean muscle mass. Both groups experienced similar weight gain. However, saturated fatty acids increased liver fat compared to polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fats caused a twofold larger increase in visceral fat tissue. Polyunsaturated fatty acids caused an almost three-fold larger increase in lean tissue. The increase in liver fat directly related to changes in blood levels of fatty acids. An increase in liver fat was related to lower amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids and vice versa.
So, researchers concluded that out of these two dietary fat types, eating saturated fatty acids promotes liver and visceral fat storage. On the other hand, overeating polyunsaturated fatty acids can instead promote lean tissue in healthy humans.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids. One study looked at the effects of omega 3 fatty acids on oxidative stress and energy metabolism parameters in visceral fat. Researchers fed mice either a control diet or a high-fat diet for six weeks. Then, after this, they gave the mice fish oil for four weeks.
Treating with omega 3 fatty acids reduced visceral fat mass. Omega 3 fatty acids were able to reduce oxidative damage and alleviate changes to the antioxidant defense system.
Researchers concluded that omega 3 fatty acids have beneficial effects on visceral fat of obese mice. This is because omega 3 fatty acids can mitigate changes from consuming a high in fat diet. This shows that although they may be similar in calories, one type of fat is healthier than the other.
Excess fat tissue growth is dependent upon angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is the growth of new blood vessels. Angiogenesis inhibitors can regulate fat tissue mass by cutting off the blood supply. One herbal combination, in particular, is antiangiogenic. This is a combination of white mulberry leaf extract, lemon balm leaf extract, and Injin extract.
One study looked to see if this combination could reduce fast growing abdominal fat by stopping angiogenesis. 80 abdominally obese subjects participated in a 12 week randomized, double-blind study. They found that the group taking the herbal combination reduced their visceral fat level by 20.5%.
This was statistically significant compared to the placebo group. So, researchers concluded that this herbal combination could help to reduce visceral fat and improve obesity-related metabolic disease.
Soluble fiber helps to reduce visceral fat. So if you want to increase your fiber intake, try eating foods like beans or apples with the skin on. This, therefore, can reduce the dangerous fat that lies deep in the abdomen and surrounds your internal organs.
Caffeine isn’t always the best choice, especially if you have anxiety or insomnia. However, it can help reduce visceral fat. A randomized, double-blind study looked at 90 obese subjects. They took 200 milligrams of caffeine three times per day, and they lost significant amounts of weight and whole-body fat mass.
Most importantly, they lowered their visceral fat mass. So, this study shows that caffeine can be a modestly effective weight and fat loss solution. It produces significant reductions in fat mass.
Intermittent fasting can also help reduce visceral fat tissue. This is because overconsuming food more than three times per day can cause excessive accumulation of visceral fat. This is particularly true if combined with a sedentary (low movement) lifestyle.
As you can see, abdominal fat isn’t just undesired because of its effects on physical appearance. It can truly be dangerous. But, if you want to reduce your visceral fat, speak to your doctor about what option might be best for you. Medications may also be an option. However, if you are looking for solutions with less potential for side effects, there are alternatives.
High-intensity interval training is a time-efficient form of exercise that can reduce visceral fat. Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega 3 fatty acids can be helpful too. Caffeine and herbal remedies can also help to reduce visceral fat too. If you have abdominal fat, it’s possible that you also have excessive visceral fat as well. So speak to your health care provider to see what option would be best for you.