Lifestyle diseases characterize diseases that occur primarily as a result of a person’s daily habits. Some of the main contributing factors include bad food habits, physical inactivity, stress, and an aging biological clock — all of which contribute to visceral (intra-abdominal) fat.

When it comes to your health, where you store your fat makes a difference. Are you shaped like an apple or more like a pear? KRON 4 Morning News Weekend anchor, Marty Gonzalez, and I talk about the difference between the fat that has settled on your hips and thighs versus what you’re carrying upfront.

All Fat is Not Equal

Fat accumulated in the lower body, such as the hips, thighs, and buttocks (the “pear shape”) is subcutaneous fat. Subcutaneous fat lies under your skin and above your muscles — it’s the “pinchable stuff”. Subcutaneous fat is measured by pinching your skin in a several different locations.

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Your “love handles” are pinchable subcutaneous fat.

Visceral fat, a.k.a. intra-abdominal, belly, or deep fat, (the “pear shape”) lies out of reach and is tucked deep within your abdominal cavity where it pads the spaces between and around your VISCERA — your internal organs like your heart, lungs, liver, and other organs.

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It’s also stored in the “omentum” — an apron-like flap of tissue that sits underneath the abdominal muscles and blankets the intestines. As the omentum fills with fat, it gets harder and thicker.

Lifestyle Diseases Linked to Visceral Fat

Research shows that people with “apple-shaped” bodies face more health risks than those with “pear-shaped” bodies. You need some visceral fat to cushion your organs, but too much of it has been correlated with the following health conditions:

  1. Heart disease
  2. High blood pressure
  3. Cancers (breast, colon, esophagus, pancreas)
  4. Diabetes
  5. Dementia
  • Kaiser Permanente of Northern California studied of 6,500 members for an average of 36 years, from they were in their 40’s to 70’s. The study concluded subjects with higher visceral fat had a higher risk of dementia than those with less visceral fat.

Possible speculation of the trial is that substances such as leptin, a hormone released by the belly fat, may have some adverse effects on the brain. Leptin plays a role in appetite regulation but also in learning and memory.

  • Researchers are not clear why visceral fat plays a larger role in insulin resistance — which raises risk for diabetes — than other fat.

Why Visceral Fat is a Health Risk

Visceral fat is most dangerous because it is biologically active — that is, it acts like an organ producing hormones and other substances that have harmful effects.
Cholesterol plaque in artery (atherosclerosis) illustrationExcess visceral fat is near the portal vein which carries blood from your intestines to your liver.

Substances (e.g., free fatty acids) released by visceral fat enter the portal vein and travel to your liver where they can affect the production of fats in the blood. Visceral fat is directly linked to:

  • Higher total cholesterol
  • Higher LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Lower HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes

How Much Belly Fat is Too Much   

Belly fat is both visceral AND subcutaneous fat. An MRI or CT scan is the most precise way to measure how much visceral fat you’re carrying around, but it’s costly.

NOTE: Researchers are developing a blood test to measure visceral fat stores using RBP4 (retinol binding protein 4) as a biomarker. There is a strong connection between increased levels of visceral fat and increases in RBP4 levels.

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If you have an oversized belly, it isn’t critical to know how much is visceral and how much is subcutaneous — just know it’s unhealthy regardless. Your waist size is a simple reliable measure of your belly fat.

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Measure your waist at your belly button (the umbilicus).
  • Your waist should be half of your height. For example, if you are 6’ tall (72”), your waist should be no more than 36” around.
  • Waist size increases the risk of diabetes in men. A waist of over 40 inches increases risk by 12 times. A 38 to 40-inch waist increases risk by 5 times.

Why You’re an Apple vs. a Pear

Fat in the abdomen area (the “apple shape”) is primarily visceral and influenced by several factors, such as:

  • Hormones – Many menopausal women transform to being apple-shaped.
  • Heredity
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Inactivity
  • Alcohol intake – When you drink alcohol, your liver burns alcohol instead of fat. The result? A “beer belly”.

Thin People Have Belly Fat Too!

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Thin people can have visceral fat.

You don’t have to be overweight to have too much visceral fat. In one study, thin people were more likely to have too much visceral fat when they were INACTIVE despite watching their diets.

Ways to Lose Belly Fat

If your waist is too wide…

  1. Drink less alcohol. 
  2. Eat foods high in WATER and FIBER (low in calories, nutrient dense), such as fresh fruits, vegetables, beans/peas, hot cereals, pastas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn.
  3. Avoid DRY and/or FATTY foods (calorie dense), such as breads, bagels, dry ready-to-eat cereals, pretzels, nuts, cakes, cookies, cheese, chips.
  4. Go natural. Processed foods are often loaded with trans fats, sugar, and salt which boost belly fat.
  5. Reduce stress and don’t skimp on sleep.
  6. Stand up and move. The average adult burns 100 calories when walking one mile. Walking 5 miles (10,000 steps) burns 500 calories. Doing sit-ups, crunches, and other ab exercises will NOT eliminate it. It’ll strengthen the core muscles (your abdominal “girdle”) that hold in your belly fat, but won’t get rid of it.

Karen’s Fit Tip: The good news… you’ll tend to lose slightly more of the dangerous visceral fat first. Since visceral fat is biologically active, it’s broken down quicker than other fat since it uses energy (calories). Stay accountable and monitor your progress. Weigh weekly. Measure your waist size monthly. Join the 4-Week Ab Challenge!

Karen Owoc

I’m a Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Clinical Exercise Physiologist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, KRON 4's weekly health expert, speaker, and author of my book on functional longevity, “Athletes in Aprons: The Nutrition Playbook to Break 100".

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