Visceral Fat - what is it?

10 February 2017

Visceral fat, or ‘belly fat’ as it is more commonly known, is a sticky, dense fat stored within the abdominal cavity, around our internal organs. It is an active fat, releasing a protein which makes it difficult for our bodies to process insulin, which keeps our sugar levels from becoming too high or too low.

Visceral Fat is very different to subcutaneous fat, which is what we can feel under the skin on our hips, thighs, buttocks and elsewhere on our bodies.

The interesting thing about visceral fat is that you can be a healthy weight, and slim in appearance but still store a high amount of it; thin on the outside, fat on the inside, or a ‘TOFI’.

The diagram shows the clear difference between the two types of fat in our bodies.

Why does it matter?

We all have Visceral Fat, which in a small amount is perfectly healthy, as it allows our bodies to acquire vitamins A, D, E, and K and also helps to regulate body temperature.

However, too much visceral fat can have several serious health implications, the most common of which are cardiovascular risk and an increased chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Why does it increase?

Diet and exercise levels are the two main causes of how much visceral fat you may store, but stress, high alcohol consumption and smoking may also be key factors. Stress in particular, produces a hormone called cortisol which significantly increases the storage of visceral fat.

Can visceral fat be measured?

The most commonly used tool for measuring body mass is the Body Mass Index (BMI). This will tell you how much mass, or weight your body has but not what this mass comprises of, for example your body mass is made up of muscle, fluids, organs and different types of fat – which can all reside in the same part of the body. BMI doesn’t tell you where your weight is.

With this in mind, measuring visceral fat is more complex than many people would think. An MRI Scan can accurately measure the amount of visceral fat in a persons body, but this is an inconvenient and costly process. Likewise, a documentary on BBC Three in November 2016 called ‘Obesity – The Post Mortem’ recently showed a live autopsy of an overweight lady, which showed very clearly the amount of visceral fat that she had accumulated. Obviously, neither an MRI Scan or an autopsy is a practical solution on a day to day basis.

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