Visceral Fat – What is it?

By Amanda Whitford

Visceral fat is the fat you don’t see.  It hides around your liver and kidneys, your intestines and your reproductive system.

Visceral fat and subcutaneous fat are two distinct types of fat with some big differences in location and function.  Visceral fat refers to the fat found in our abdominal cavity surrounding our organs, while subcutaneous fat is the fat found under our skin that we can see, and feel (and which fills out our clothes!).

While most people worry about subcutaneous fat because from a vanity point this is what we see, it is actually the visceral fat that poses the biggest threat to our health and wellbeing because these fat cells are larger and more metabolically active than the subcutaneous fat cells and they produce more harmful substances.   These substances cause inflammation in our bodies which can then lead to various health issues and diseases.

So why is visceral fat so dangerous?

Both types of fat cells act as endocrine organs; they can produce hormones and other chemicals that affect other areas of the body, however, visceral fat cells are larger, more metabolically active, and produce more harmful substances.

A big part of this is the production of small proteins called cytokines. There are many types of cytokines with varying functions but the ones produced by visceral fat seem to be largely those that contribute to inflammation within the body.

Inflammation is part of your natural immune response and includes redness, swelling, pain, and heat all designed to help remove something that your body doesn’t like, or to begin the healing process.

If your body is constantly producing excess cytokines it can lead to chronic (long term) inflammation which leads to a wide range of problems throughout your body.

Chronic inflammation can increase hypertension, and cholesterol deposition in your artery walls, both of which are risk factors for the development of heart disease. It can contribute to your cells becoming insulin resistant, and subsequently Type II diabetes.

Visceral fat releases free fatty acids more readily than subcutaneous fat. As it is located close to the portal vein, which carries blood back to the liver, these fatty acids enter the liver and have been found to increase the liver’s synthesis and output of LDL cholesterol, which is the ‘bad’ cholesterol that deposits in tissues such as your arteries, and to decrease HDL the ‘good’ cholesterol that carries it away from your body tissues. This combination results in heightened susceptibility to cardiovascular disease.

Along with disease risks, excess visceral fat can cause fertility problems for both men and women. It promotes the conversion of testosterone to estrogen resulting in an excess of estrogen in the body. For women this can cause several fertility issues including low libido, irregular ovulation, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome. In men too much estrogen can be detrimental to libido, sperm count, sperm cell development, and can cause erectile dysfunction.

Evidence shows that these fertility problems can often be overcome if efforts are taken to reduce visceral fat levels.

So what are the contributing factors for visceral fat?

While it does have a small genetic element to it, the major contributors are:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Nutrient poor diet
  • Processed or high sugar foods
  • High alcohol intake
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep

Visceral fat can be reduced by moderate to high intensity exercise and a healthy diet, limiting processed foods. Reducing stress is also important as stress increases cortisol levels, which in turn promotes visceral fat deposition.

It’s important to note that anyone could have high visceral fat. People may have both types of fat, and high visceral fat is often trademarked by a large abdominal cavity and waist circumference, but this is not always the case. Some people may have a lot of body fat but very little deposited around their organs, while others, sometimes referred to as ‘skinny fat’, can have very little body fat but dangerous levels of visceral fat hidden around their vital organs.

This means that you shouldn’t look enviously at those ‘thin people’ who are able to eat anything and everything  they like, as they could be eating themselves into a life of inflammation and disease- and the scary part is that they probably have no idea!


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