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Visceral Fat: What is It??
The body stores fat in most areas of the body. It is well known that excess fat can increase the risk for certain diseases. However, it is also becoming quite clear that the location where the fat is stored plays a large role in health and future disease risk. Subcutaneous fat is fat that is found near the skin surface. This fat is easier to lose and carries less potential for health problems compared to another type of fat, visceral fat. Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds the internal organs. This type of fat is harder to lose and plays a considerable role in development of chronic disease.
People with the highest levels of visceral fat include those who consume diets poor in vitamin rich foods and:
Have high stress levels
Consume a high-fat diet, especially saturated fat
Visceral fat can be measured by a number of different techniques, some of which are better than others. The most common methods include waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, bioelectrical impedance, and a CT scan. Although CT scanning is the most accurate way to measure visceral fat, it is not practical for most people given the high expense and unnecessary radiation exposure. Bioelectrical impedance is another method that sends a harmless electrical current through the body and measures the resistance to this electricity. Since lean tissue and fat tissue have different conduction abilities, bioelectrical impedance can measure the amount of fat in the body. Newer bioelectrical impedance machines have the ability to measure the visceral fat levels. Bioelectrical impedance is the most accurate measurement of visceral fat for the average consumer, although the home models can still cost several hundred dollars. Waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio are quick, easy, and cheap ways to measure visceral fat . Although not quite as accurate as bioelectrical impedance, they are the most practical way to measure visceral fat for most people. High visceral fat levels are found in men with a waist-to-hip ratio greater than 1.0 and in women greater than 0.85. For example, if a woman measured her waist circumference over her belly button at 32 inches and her hip circumference over the largest protrusion of her buttocks at 36 inches, her waist-to-hip ratio is 32/36, or 0.89, a high level of visceral fat.
Although the exact mechanism of how visceral fat causes health problems is unclear, the most accepted theory is that the visceral fat releases excess free fatty acids, which result in insulin resistance in the liver. This insulin resistance is the trigger for all other health problems related to visceral fat including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers. The liver also releases additional cholesterol into the bloodstream, which accumulates on artery walls and develops into plaque, ultimately blocking blood flow through the artery. This development of atherosclerosis and artery stiffness is a significant contributor to these health problems. Android obesity, the pattern of visceral fat accumulation around the waist, is also associated with greater cardiovascular mortality, higher cortisol secretion, lower testosterone levels, and lower growth hormone levels. People who have high body fat levels, but have low to normal visceral fat levels do not exhibit these same health problems .
Visceral fat is more difficult to lose than subcutaneous fat because visceral fat surrounds the internal organs and the body preferentially spares this fat for energy storage and organ cushioning. However, it is possible to lose this fat on a phytonutrient and whole foods vitamin rich diet. The best ways to lose visceral fat are to eat a low-fat, low-calorie diet and to exercise regularly. One study compared women assigned to one of three treatment groups: diet, exercise, or diet and exercise. The greatest reductions in visceral fat were in subjects assigned to diet or diet and exercise, exercise alone was not enough. Furthermore, both of these groups also reduced total abdominal fat and subcutaneous fat levels . However, the diet only group also lost lean mass, which resulted in a decline in metabolic rate. The interventions that have been shown to reduce visceral fat and maintain or improve lean mass are those incorporating low-fat, low calorie diets and regular exercise, especially intense exercise .
Diets with a daily caloric intake of 500-1000 calories less than caloric expenditure will result in 1-2 pounds of fat loss per week. This caloric intake has been shown to yield the best balance of consistent weight loss and ease of continued compliance by the participant. Daily calorie intake should never drop below 1200 calories for women and 1500 calories for men to prevent lean body mass from being catabolized for energy. Higher protein intake during weight loss has also been shown to preserve lean body mass, which helps to prevent the metabolism from slowing down. Although, high protein diets are not always recommended!
Physical activity should consist of at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. The benefit of exercise increases with the number of exercise days per week. Incorporating one or two days per week of higher intensity exercise will help to burn more visceral fat which has the greatest benefit for reducing chronic disease risk.
1 Ryo M, Maeda K, Onda T, Katashima M, Okumiya A, Nishida M, Yamaguchi T, Funahashi T, Matsuzawa Y, Nakamura T, Shimomura I: A new simple method for the measurement of visceral fat accumulation by bioelectrical impedance. Diabetes Care 2005;28:451-453.
2 Bjorntorp P: [Metabolic difference between visceral fat and subcutaneous abdominal fat]. Diabetes Metab 2000;26 Suppl 3:10-12.
3 Giannopoulou I, Ploutz-Snyder LL, Carhart R, Weinstock RS, Fernhall B, Goulopoulou S, Kanaley JA: Exercise is required for visceral fat loss in postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2005;90:1511-1518.
4 Lynch NA, Nicklas BJ, Berman DM, Dennis KE, Goldberg AP: Reductions in visceral fat during weight loss and walking are associated with improvements in VO(2 max). J Appl Physiol 2001;90:99-104.
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