Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health


In today’s health-conscious world, understanding our bodies is more important than ever. A key aspect of this knowledge is understanding body fat types. ‘Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health’ is a subject not only for fitness enthusiasts but for everyone concerned with maintaining their well-being. This article offers an insightful look into these two unique types of fat, their impact on our health, and the importance of knowing the difference. Simply put, familiarizing ourselves with the differences between visceral fat and subcutaneous fat is an effective way of taking control of our health.

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

Regardless of your physique, an excess of body fat poses health risks. Yet, not all fat is created equal, as its location plays a critical role in our health. Recent research consistently reveals that the fat stored deep within our abdomen, also known as visceral fat, is more harmful than the subcutaneous fat that resides just beneath the skin.

Subcutaneous fat comprises approximately 90% of our body fat and can be identified as the soft layer beneath the skin. In contrast, visceral fat, accounts for the remaining 10%. Visceral fat is concealed beneath the abdominal wall. It encases vital organs like the liver and intestines. Additionally, it occupies the omentum, a protective tissue layer around the intestines. As it accumulates fat, the omentum becomes stiffer.

Despite its smaller proportion, visceral fat significantly influences numerous health conditions. Women, particularly during their midlife years, often experience an increase in their fat-to-weight ratio. Fat storage increasingly favors the upper body over the hips and thighs. This shift may not necessarily result in weight gain, but it can lead to a growing waistline as visceral fat exerts pressure against the abdominal wall.

A Tale of Two Figures: An Introduction

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

In the charming town of Vita, two women named Grace and Stella lived parallel lives. Grace, elegant and wafer-thin without effort, was the envy of many. Stella, on the other hand, was robust and known for her unwavering commitment to a healthy lifestyle despite her predisposition to gain weight.

Grace: The Effortless Elegance

Grace was a head-turner. People marveled at her natural thinness, her energy, and her seemingly perfect health. Little did they know, her body had a secret: it struggled to process fat effectively. This inefficient fat metabolism resulted in an accumulation of visceral fat, a type of fat that isn’t apparent on the outside but wreaks havoc inside the body, surrounding vital organs and increasing her risk of chronic diseases.

The Invisible Enemy: Grace’s Battle

As years passed, Grace began to feel the invisible toll. Breathlessness, fatigue, and discomfort became her constant companions. Her body, despite appearing thin and fit, was fighting a silent war against the visceral fat accumulating around her organs. The battle was fierce, and the odds were stacked against her. Eventually, Grace’s health began to deteriorate rapidly, and the town’s once admired figure passed away prematurely.

Stella: The Determined Soul

Stella was a contrast to Grace. She was not naturally slim and had to constantly put in effort to maintain a healthy body. Her regimen included regular exercise and a carefully controlled diet, all aimed at managing her weight. Behind this robust figure, however, lay a body that efficiently processed and stored fat as subcutaneous fat, the kind that is visible and resides under the skin.

Fighting the Visible: Stella’s Triumph

Although Stella’s body was prone to gaining fat, it stored this fat subcutaneously, away from her vital organs. This kind of fat, unlike visceral fat, doesn’t impose the same level of risk for chronic diseases. It was Stella’s hard work and determination that kept her body in check, ensuring the fat was stored in a safer way.

Stella’s Longevity: The Reward of Hard Work

Thanks to her diligent efforts and her body’s efficient fat processing, Stella lived a longer, healthier life. Despite her body’s tendency to gain weight, she proved that perseverance and consistent effort can overcome natural predispositions. Her story served as a lesson to Vita, demonstrating that appearances can be deceptive, and true health lies beneath the surface.

Conclusion: A Tale of Two Fats

In their unique ways, both Grace and Stella taught the town of Vita about the complexities of body fat. Grace’s story showed the dangers of hidden visceral fat, even in a thin body, while Stella illustrated the power of perseverance in managing one’s health, regardless of a natural tendency to gain weight. Both their lives echo a vital message – understanding the nuances of visceral vs. subcutaneous fat can be life-changing, if not life-saving.

Understanding Body Fat

First, it’s crucial to note that not all body fat is harmful. In fact, it serves vital functions such as energy storage, hormone production, and protecting our organs. The issue lies in the type and distribution of fat within the body. There are two main types of body fat: Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat. Each has its own characteristics and health implications.

What is Subcutaneous Fat?

Subcutaneous fat, the most common type of fat in your body, is located directly under your skin. It’s the fat you can pinch on your arms, thighs, abdomen, and virtually all over your body. This layer of fat acts as an energy reserve, helps regulate body temperature, and provides a cushion to protect your muscles and bones. While excess subcutaneous fat can be a cosmetic concern for many, it’s typically less harmful than its visceral counterpart. It’s also worth noting that the distribution of subcutaneous fat varies between men and women, largely due to differences in sex hormones.

What is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat, also known as ‘deep’ fat, wraps around your internal organs in your abdominal region, including the liver, stomach, and intestines. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you can’t see or pinch visceral fat. Although everyone has some visceral fat, having too much of it can pose serious health risks. It’s associated with an increased risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. The reasons behind the harmful nature of visceral fat are complex and are related to its bioactive properties, as it can secrete harmful substances into your body.

How Does Visceral Fat Differ from Subcutaneous Fat?

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

While both types of fat may seem similar, there are key differences in their location, function, and the potential health risks they pose. As mentioned earlier, subcutaneous fat is located under the skin, while visceral fat is found deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding the internal organs. However, the distinctions go far beyond their locations.

Understanding Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat

Here’s a breakdown of the main differences between visceral fat and subcutaneous fat:

  1. Location
    • Visceral Fat: Found deep within the abdomen, it surrounds vital organs like the liver and intestines.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: Located just beneath the skin, it can be found all over the body, including arms, thighs, and belly.
  2. Volume
    • Visceral Fat: Comprises about 10% of total body fat.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: Accounts for approximately 90% of total body fat.
  3. Impact on Health
    • Visceral Fat: Despite its smaller proportion, it has a significant influence on various health conditions. Excessive visceral fat can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic issues.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: While large volumes can be unhealthy, it generally poses less risk than visceral fat. It’s necessary for normal body function, serving as an energy store and insulator.
  4. Changes Over Time
    • Visceral Fat: Tends to increase with age and lifestyle factors, like poor diet and lack of exercise. It’s also more likely to increase waist circumference.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: Also affected by age and lifestyle, but changes are usually more visible since it’s located directly beneath the skin.
  5. Management
    • Visceral Fat: Reduced through a combination of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress management.
    • Subcutaneous Fat: Typically the first to be lost during weight loss, through a balanced diet and exercise.

Remember, while both types of fat are necessary, maintaining a healthy balance is crucial for overall health.

Subcutaneous Fat vs. Visceral Fat – What’s the Difference? | The Peter Attia Drive

The Impact of Visceral Fat on Health

Unlike subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is metabolically active, meaning it can interfere with your body’s hormones. Visceral fat produces more of the hormone called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4), which can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance, a major factor in the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Also, it releases fatty acids into the liver, affecting blood cholesterol levels, and leading to high blood pressure, among other health conditions.

orange and white plastic bottle on brown wooden table

The Role of Subcutaneous Fat

While excess subcutaneous fat, especially in the abdominal area, can be a cosmetic concern, it’s generally less harmful than visceral fat. As it lies beneath the skin, it doesn’t interfere with the function of your organs, and unlike visceral fat, it doesn’t release harmful substances into your body. However, it’s worth noting that an excessive amount of subcutaneous fat can still lead to health problems such as lower body mobility issues and even increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

How to Measure Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat

Since visceral fat is located deep within your abdomen, it can’t be measured with a regular scale or body mass index (BMI). However, advanced imaging techniques like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can provide an accurate measurement. For practicality, many health professionals use waist circumference as a surrogate measure for visceral fat. A larger waist measurement often indicates more visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, is easier to measure. It’s the layer of fat you can pinch, and it can be measured using calipers in a skinfold thickness test. Another common method is bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), found in many modern body composition scales.

Measuring Visceral Fat at Home: A Simple Guide

Although visceral fat is stored deep within the abdomen, making it difficult to measure directly at home, an indirect method is to measure your waist circumference. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Locate Your Measuring Point: Stand up and locate your hip bone and the bottom of your ribs. Your waist is the area midway between these two points.
  2. Position the Tape Measure: Place a flexible tape measure around your waist at the midpoint you’ve just identified. Ensure the tape is level and snug but not pushing into your skin.
  3. Take Your Measurement: Exhale and take the measurement without sucking in your stomach. Note down the measurement.
  4. Interpret Your Results: For men, a waist circumference of 40 inches (102 cm) or more, and for women, a measurement of 35 inches (88 cm) or more, is associated with an unhealthy concentration of visceral fat.

Keep in mind that waist circumference is just an indirect measure of visceral fat, and factors like muscle mass and subcutaneous fat also contribute to the measurement. For a more accurate assessment, professional medical tests, such as a DEXA scan or an MRI, are recommended.

Remember, achieving and maintaining a healthy waist size is crucial in managing your visceral fat levels and reducing associated health risks. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management can all contribute to healthier body composition.

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

Signs You Have High Visceral Fat (without Getting a DXA Scan)

Risk Factors and Causes of Excess Visceral Fat

There are several factors associated with the accumulation of visceral fat. Genetics play a role in fat distribution in the body. Your age also matters, as visceral fat tends to increase with age, especially post-menopause in women. Other risk factors are linked to lifestyle habits. A sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, high alcohol intake, and lack of sleep can all contribute to the accumulation of visceral fat. Chronic stress can also increase cortisol levels, which has been associated with higher visceral fat storage.

Excessive visceral fat can be attributed to a variety of risk factors and causes:

  1. Poor Diet: Consumption of high-calorie, processed foods, and sugary drinks can lead to an accumulation of visceral fat.
  2. Lack of Physical Activity: A sedentary lifestyle with minimal exercise promotes fat accumulation, especially around the abdominal area.
  3. Age: As we age, metabolic changes can lead to the accumulation of visceral fat.
  4. Genetics: Some individuals are genetically predisposed to carry excess fat in the abdominal area.
  5. Stress: High-stress levels can stimulate the production of cortisol, a hormone that may lead to the storage of fat around the belly.
  6. Inadequate Sleep: Lack of quality sleep or irregular sleep patterns can disrupt your metabolism and lead to weight gain, including visceral fat.
  7. Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol intake can cause you to gain belly fat and is linked to increased visceral fat.

It’s essential to manage these risk factors to maintain a healthy level of visceral fat and overall body composition. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep hygiene can contribute to healthier body fat distribution.

Steps to Reduce Visceral Fat for Improved Health

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

Follow these practical steps to manage and reduce visceral fat:

  1. Adopt a Healthy Diet: Incorporate lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet. These nutrient-rich foods can help reduce visceral fat.
  2. Introduce Intermittent Fasting: Intermittent fasting, where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting, can help reduce body fat, including visceral fat. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting a fasting regimen.
  3. Engage in Regular Physical Activity: Both aerobic and resistance training exercises have been proven effective in reducing visceral fat. Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise each week.
  4. Aim for Overall Weight Loss: Targeting weight loss in a specific area isn’t possible, but losing weight in general often results in decreased visceral fat.
  5. Get Adequate Sleep: Strive for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. Lack of sleep can disturb hormone balance, potentially leading to weight gain, including visceral fat.
  6. Manage Stress: High-stress levels can contribute to an increase in visceral fat. Use stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing exercises.
  7. Maintain Consistency: Regular and consistent lifestyle changes are most effective in reducing visceral fat.

Remember, each step taken towards a healthier lifestyle can help reduce visceral fat and improve overall health.

The Impact of a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet on Visceral Fat Reduction

a steak and vegetables cooking on a grill

A low-carb, high-fat diet, like the ketogenic diet, can contribute to reducing visceral fat. This diet type encourages the body to use fat as its primary fuel source rather than carbohydrates. The shift to burning fat can lead to weight loss, including a reduction in visceral fat.

However, it’s crucial to remember that while such a diet can promote weight loss and visceral fat reduction, it should still include nutrient-dense food sources to ensure overall health. Fats should primarily come from healthy sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, rather than highly processed foods or unhealthy fats.

It’s also worth noting that while low-carb, high-fat diets can be effective, they may not be suitable or sustainable for everyone. Therefore, it’s recommended to consult with a healthcare professional or a nutritionist before making significant changes to your diet.

Dietary Habits and Visceral Fat Accumulation

The role of dietary habits in the accumulation of visceral fat can’t be overstated. Consuming excess calories, especially from processed, high-sugar, and high-fat foods, can lead to weight gain and increased fat storage in the body. Particular attention should be paid to the intake of trans fats. Found in some processed foods, trans fats have been shown to increase visceral fat while decreasing beneficial subcutaneous fat. Reducing the intake of these harmful fats and increasing the consumption of healthy fats, like those found in fish, avocados, and olive oil, can be a positive dietary change for better fat distribution and overall health.

STOP EATING These Foods To Burn Belly (Visceral) Fat TODAY! | Mark Hyman

The Role of Exercise in Managing Visceral Fat

Follow these steps to effectively incorporate exercise into your routine to manage and reduce visceral fat:

  1. Choose the Right Type of Exercise: Both aerobic exercises (like running, swimming, hula hooping, or cycling) and resistance training (weight lifting or bodyweight exercises) have been proven to reduce visceral fat.
  2. Set a Consistent Routine: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week. Breaking it down, this could mean 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week.
  3. Include High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods. Studies have shown it to be effective in reducing visceral fat.
  4. Don’t Neglect Strength Training: Incorporate strength training into your workout routine at least twice a week. This helps build muscle mass, which can boost your metabolism and assist in fat loss.
  5. Stay Active Throughout the Day: In addition to scheduled exercise, try to maintain an active lifestyle. Take the stairs, walk during your lunch break, or consider a standing desk.
  6. Track Your Progress: Keep a record of your workouts to monitor progress and keep yourself accountable.

Remember, while exercise plays a crucial role in reducing visceral fat, it is most effective when combined with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle habits. Regular physical activity not only helps reduce visceral fat but also brings a host of other health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, increased strength, better mood, and improved sleep quality.

Stress, Sleep, and Visceral Fat: A Hormonal Perspective

person lying on bed while covering face with pillow and holding eyeglasses

When addressing visceral fat, it’s important to consider not only diet and exercise but also the crucial roles of stress, sleep, and their hormonal implications.

  1. Stress and Its Hormonal Impact: Chronic stress leads to an elevated production of the hormone cortisol, often dubbed the ‘stress hormone’. Increased cortisol levels can stimulate your appetite, especially for high-calorie, high-fat foods, leading to weight gain and visceral fat accumulation.
  2. Sleep, Hormones, and Visceral Fat: Inadequate or poor-quality sleep disrupts the balance of appetite-regulating hormones – ghrelin and leptin. This disruption can lead to increased hunger, higher calorie intake, and potential visceral fat gain. Moreover, poor sleep can negatively impact insulin sensitivity, raising the risk of type 2 diabetes.

To effectively manage these, consider the following steps:

  1. Adopt a Consistent Sleep Routine: Strive for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Establish a regular sleep schedule and maintain a sleep-conducive environment.
  2. Implement Stress Management Strategies: Techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, and other relaxation practices can help control stress and thus cortisol levels. Balanced nutrition and regular exercise also contribute significantly to stress management.
  3. Seek Professional Guidance: Utilize resources like those offered by the American Psychological Association for effective stress management strategies.

A holistic approach that encompasses stress and sleep management alongside diet and exercise, is vital in the battle against visceral fat. Such an approach not only targets visceral fat reduction but also enhances overall hormonal balance and well-being.

Subcutaneous Fat: Not All Fat is Bad

While visceral fat is often painted in a negative light, subcutaneous fat can have some health benefits. It helps store energy, provides insulation to regulate body temperature, and acts as a cushion to protect your muscles and bones from injury. Interestingly, subcutaneous fat can also produce beneficial hormones. For instance, leptin, which regulates your appetite and body weight, and adiponectin, which regulates glucose levels and fatty acid breakdown. Lower levels of these hormones are found in individuals with less subcutaneous fat, which may increase the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Collaborating with Healthcare Professionals: Your Key to Managing Visceral Fat

girl in blue jacket holding red and silver ring

When dealing with visceral fat, reaching out to healthcare professionals is an essential first step. They can:

  1. Provide a Detailed Assessment: Healthcare providers can give an accurate measure of your body fat composition.
  2. Offer Personalized Guidance: They can suggest the best strategies to reduce visceral fat and enhance overall health.
  3. Emphasize a Holistic Approach: The focus should be on overall health, not just reducing your waist size. While reducing excess visceral fat boosts health, it’s also crucial to maintain appropriate levels of subcutaneous fat, which supports several body functions.

Medical Interventions for Visceral Fat Reduction

Lifestyle modifications are fundamental to managing visceral fat. However, certain situations might necessitate medical intervention:

  1. Consideration of Medications: For some, medications like Orlistat, which inhibits dietary fat absorption, can be helpful. Other medicines target associated issues like high cholesterol or blood sugar levels.
  2. Non-Surgical Procedures: Options like gastric balloons can induce feelings of fullness, thus reducing food intake.
  3. Surgical Interventions: In extreme cases, bariatric surgery might be considered. Such options are typically last-resort due to their associated risks and side effects.

It’s vital to remember that any medical intervention should be pursued under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Importance of Regular Check-ups

person holding ballpoint pen writing on notebook

While it’s crucial to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, it’s equally important to have regular health check-ups. They help identify any early signs of health conditions related to high levels of visceral fat, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, or certain types of cancer. Early detection can lead to more effective treatment and better outcomes. Health screenings can also monitor the progress of efforts to reduce visceral fat and allow healthcare providers to adjust strategies as necessary.

Visceral Fat in Children and Adolescents

four children standing on dirt during daytime

Unfortunately, high levels of visceral fat are not only an adult problem. The sedentary lifestyle and poor diet habits associated with modern living have led to increasing instances of children and adolescents developing high visceral fat levels, and associated conditions like type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. As in adults, the primary treatment for high visceral fat in young people is lifestyle changes. This includes engaging in regular physical activity and maintaining a balanced diet. However, it’s important to note that recommendations for diet and exercise may vary based on age and development.

Steps to Prevent Visceral Fat Accumulation in Children and Adolescents

  1. Promote Balanced Nutrition: Encourage the consumption of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Limit the intake of processed foods, sugary snacks, and beverages.
  2. Encourage Regular Physical Activity: Inspire children and teens to engage in at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days of the week. This could include games, sports, or family activities like biking or hiking.
  3. Establish Consistent Sleep Patterns: Adequate sleep is essential for overall health and managing weight. Ensure your child gets age-appropriate sleep each night.
  4. Limit Screen Time: Set boundaries on the time spent in front of TVs, computers, and mobile devices. This can help to reduce sedentary behavior and encourage more active pursuits.
  5. Educate on the Importance of Health: Teach children and adolescents about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and the potential risks associated with excess visceral fat.
  6. Involve Professionals if Necessary: If a child is significantly overweight or shows signs of health issues, don’t hesitate to consult with healthcare providers for specialized guidance.

Remember, it’s essential to be supportive and positive, creating an environment that fosters healthy habits rather than focusing solely on weight. Developing these habits early can have lifelong benefits for your child’s health.

Best Strategies for Preventing Visceral Fat Accumulation

Prevention is paramount in the battle against visceral fat. By embracing a healthy lifestyle, one can effectively stave off the accumulation of this harmful fat. Here are the key strategies:

  1. Prioritize Regular Physical Activity: Engage in moderate to intense physical activity most days of the week. This could include brisk walking, running, swimming, or weightlifting.
  2. Embrace Balanced Nutrition: Include a variety of nutrient-dense foods in your diet like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Try to limit processed foods and sugary beverages.
  3. Ensure Sufficient Sleep: Aim to get enough sleep each night. Lack of sleep can disrupt metabolic processes and lead to weight gain.
  4. Manage Stress Effectively: Chronic stress can contribute to visceral fat accumulation. Incorporate stress management techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, or meditation into your routine.
  5. Avoid Unhealthy Habits: Refrain from smoking and limit alcohol intake. Both habits can contribute to weight gain and other health issues.

Each move towards a healthier lifestyle, no matter how small, plays a significant role in reducing visceral fat and enhancing overall wellbeing.

How To Lose Visceral Fat – It’s Not As Hard As You Think!

Conclusion: The Power is in Your Hands

Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health
Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Understanding the Differences for Better Health

In conclusion, visceral fat, unlike subcutaneous fat, isn’t visible on the surface but poses more severe health risks, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. But the good news is, with knowledge and conscious action, we have the power to control our visceral fat levels. Maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress levels, and ensuring adequate sleep are all key components of controlling visceral fat.

Regular health check-ups can help detect any health issues early and monitor the effectiveness of efforts to reduce visceral fat. Whether it’s making a small change to your daily diet, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting an extra hour of sleep, or taking time each day to relax and unwind, every step towards a healthier lifestyle is a step towards reducing visceral fat and improving overall health. So take that step today and make a positive change for your health. Remember, the power is in your hands.