There is a lot of confusion about fats and health – whether we’re talking about the dietary fats we consume, or the fat that accumulates in our bodies (as well as the connection between those two things). As science evolves, we are learning more about the types of fat we have on our insides and that different types of fat cells can have varying effects. Visceral fat, also known as visceral adipose tissue or VAT, has been making headlines. It’s not the kind of fat that’s immediately obvious, and can be detrimental to our health.
What Is Visceral Fat?
Visceral fat is the type of fat that surrounds the internal organs in our abdominal cavity, such as our intestines, liver and pancreas. Subcutaneous fat is what we’ll find under our skin.
You cannot tell much how much visceral fat you have – or anyone else has – by visuals alone. Excess weight around your middle can be an indication of visceral fat, but you’d need some type of scan like a bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), or an MRI or CT scan to truly confirm it and how much VAT you have. Someone with a larger body could have very little visceral fat, while a person who looks lean can have a lot of it (this is also known as being ‘skinny fat’).
Why Is Visceral Fat Dangerous?
Visceral fat is extremely active tissue that releases hormones and inflammatory chemicals. This excess release of substances can have metabolic effects and lead to substantial health risks, including:
- Insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension and atherosclerosis
- Breast, prostate and colon cancers, plus the presence of VAT can also affect recovery from cancver surgery and impact survival rates
- Obesity and its releated disorders, such as metabolic syndrome
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Sleep apnea and poor overall sleep quality
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Who Is Susceptible to Visceral Fat?
Our body fat levels and where we store fat changes throughout our lifetime. Anyone can have VAT, but those who tend to be more susceptible to it are:
- post-menopausal women
- the elderly
- middle aged men
- those who are overweight or obese (at any age)
- those who are skinny who consume and ultra-procoessed diet
How to Prevent or Lose Visceral Fat
There are several nutrition and lifestyle habits we can start to prevent visceral fat from accumulating, or to shed visceral fat.
Evidence suggests that aerobic exercise can help to reduce visceral fat levels. In fact, in one meta-analysis of 3,602 participants in randomized trials, researchers concluded that exercise had a greater effect on reducing VAT than medications.
You don’t need to do crunches or sit-ups to lose visceral fat (in fact, abdominal exercises are not the most effective at targeting VAT). Anything that gets your heart up, including walking, yoga, swimming, light jogging, stair climbing, or however else you love to move helps.
Eat a Nutrient-Rich Diet of Vegetable and Fruits
Studies have found that an overall nutrient-rich, plant-forward diet can help reduce visceral fat. In a 2-year study of healthy adults in Japan, researchers concluded that eating a lot of nutrient-dense vegetables reduced VAT. The researchers looked at some specific nutrients:
- soluble fiber
- vitamin K
- folic acid
- pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5)
This nutrients are found in many common fruits and vegetables.
In one study of Latino youth, researchers identified dark green and red/yellow vegetables as ‘nutrient rich vegetables’ (NRV). They found that the teens who consumed NRVs had 17% less visceral fat than those who didn’t eat them. The serving size in this study was small, as well – less than a serving of NRVs per day had this effect. I recommend eating more than a half serving of vegetables and fruits, but it’s encouraging to know that a small, attainable serving size can have a great benefit to our health.
Generally speaking, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables (dark leafy greens and berries are two of my faves), as well as gluten-free grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, and sustainably sourced meat and fish, will offer us an abundance of phytonutrients that will lower or prevent VAT.
Reduce Refined Sugar Consumption
High sugar consumption can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and I’ve detailed a large body of evidence that links sugar and cancer in this post. Evidence also shows that sugar consumption, especially sugary beverages, increase VAT tissue. Excess sugar can also lead to some of the health risks mentioned above like insulin resistance and diabetes.
Reduce Exposure to Obesogens
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can lead to an accumulation of visceral fat. In this study of male adults, bisphenol A levels (a common compound found in plastic) in the blood were connected to higher levels of VAT. Discover more about obesogens, where to find them and how to reduce exposure here.
A good night’s sleep is important to the immune system, healing, memory and cognition, cardiovascular health, blood sugar balance and healthy weight management. It also plays a role in VAT development.
In this five-year study of adults under 40, those who had five hours of sleep or less had a greater accumulation of visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. In another sleep study, which evaluated participants after six years, those who slept for less than six hours per night and greater than nine hours nightly had a larger accumulation of VAT than those who slept seven or eight hours. The quality of your shut eye can matter, too – in this small study, poor sleep quality was associated with higher VAT levels.
So we must sleep enough and we must sleep well, but often this isn’t a simple for many. Learn my essential steps to how to get more sleep here.
Visceral fat can have serious effects on our health, and fortunately there are many health, diet and lifestyle strategies we can employ to lose existing VAT, or reduce the risk of developing it in the first place. And these habits, such as sleeping, exercising and eating fruits and vegetables have wide-reaching health benefits to our whole body.