I'm a Doctor and Here are the Best Ways to Lose Visceral Fat, Including Managing Gut Health
Visceral fat is a health concern that many people aren't aware of, but it can be deadly. It's hidden deep in your abdomen and surrounds your vital organs, which can lead to some cancers, heart disease and more. Anyone can have visceral fat no matter your body type and shape–even someone with a flat tummy. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Visceral fat makes up about 10% of your body fat. You can figure out your visceral fat level by calculating your total body fat percentage and then taking off 10%. If your body fat percentage is higher than recommended, then your visceral fat range will be, too."
Visceral fat is much different from subcutaneous fat. Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, MBBS, Ph.D., a professor of public health at New Mexico State University explains, "One major type of body fat is subcutaneous fat which people can pinch and feel on their arms, legs, chest, and abdomen. This type of fat is visible to people as fat around the stomach area. However, the more dangerous one known as the visceral fat is not visible as it covers the abdominal organs and is accumulated deep inside the body."
Dr. Khubchandani adds, "While both types of fat are related to each other (e.g. increase in one is related to increase in the other type), visceral fat may be linked with higher levels of health problems, chronic diseases, and premature mortality due to cardiovascular diseases or stroke. There are many ways visceral fat threatens longevity. For example, visceral fat is directly linked with higher total cholesterol, and LDL (bad) cholesterol, release of inflammatory biochemical markers, and insulin resistance. It is also close to blood vessels that can take this fat to body parts."
Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with experts who share what to know about visceral fat and how to get rid of it. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
What to Know About Visceral Fat
Dr. Sepehr Lalelazari is a Bariatric Surgeon and Weight Loss Specialist with Dignity Health St. Mary in Long Beach and private practice says, "It's important to understand what visceral fat is because it is the most dangerous type of fat as it relates negatively to our health. Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds our organs, it is deep inside the abdomen and it cannot be seen. The higher your percentage of visceral fat the more likely you are to develop chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes mellitus, heart disease, fatty liver disease and stroke."
Dr. William Li, physician, scientist, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, and author of the upcoming Eat to Beat Your Diet: Burn Fat, Heal Your Metabolism, and Live Longer. says, "Visceral fat is a type of fat that normally exists within your belly in small amounts like packing peanuts in a box. But it becomes dangerous when it grows to excess, which comes with unhealthy eating, overeating, and hormonal imbalances. Then visceral fat can wrap around your internal organs and release chemical signals that cause inflammation and damage your metabolism, raising blood sugar levels and insulin secretion. When this happens, you can develop metabolic syndrome, which is a form of pre-diabetes. High amounts of visceral fat increase the risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer — as well as obesity."
How to Tell if You Have Visceral Fat
Dr. Lalelazari says, "It's hard to tell how much visceral fat you actually have without testing but a simple way to gauge this is by measurement of your waist circumference. Waist circumference is a measure of abdominal obesity and provides independent risk information. A waist circumference of ≥40 in (102 cm) for males and ≥35 in (88 cm) for females puts us at increased risk. This number is lower for Asian descent where a waist circumference ≥31 in (80 cm) in Asian females and ≥35 in (90 cm) in Asian males is considered abnormal. Interestingly enough many people think the waist to hip ratio is important but it provides no advantage over the waist circumference alone and is not recommended by the newest version of American Heart Association (AHA)/American College of Cardiology (ACC)/The Obesity Society (TOS) guideline. A good way to tell if you are losing visceral fat again becomes relative to your waist circumference. If you are decreasing your waist circumference you are most likely losing visceral fat."
Dr. Li explains, "Normally, visceral fat is invisible to the naked eye. It is hidden deep in the bowels of your belly. When too much visceral fat grows, however, it grows it causes your belly to protrude. You may notice a growing waist circumference, so you need a larger waist size for pants. Similarly, when you lose visceral fat, your waistline shrinks, and your belly pouches out less."
What Causes Visceral Fat
Besides a poor diet and lack of exercise, Dr. Khubchandani explains other causes of visceral fat. "Stress has been consistently linked with a variety of health problems including heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and stroke. Stress is also linked with unhealthy diet consumption and habits such as smoking, alcohol use, and sleep disruption (all linked with visceral fat accumulation). Therefore, stress is both indirectly and directly linked with body fat accumulation (e.g., release of cortisol type stress related biochemicals in the body).
Alcohol use is another major cause of visceral fat accumulation. Alcoholic beverages are rich in fat and sugar which are accumulated as visceral fat. Visceral fat accumulation is directly linked with drinking habits (number of drinks, type of drink, duration of drinking, etc.). When we consume a lot of alcohol, the liver starts burning alcohol instead of fat. Similarly, smoking increases the accumulation of fat more towards the abdomen resulting in greater deposits of visceral fat. So smoking is also linked in this way to diabetes, heart disease, strokes. If you make a commitment to reduce visceral fat, give up drinking, smoking, stressing too much, and maintain sleep hygiene."
How Long it Takes to Get Rid of Visceral Fat and Best Ways to Lose it
Dr. Lalelazari says, "Weight loss is a tricky topic, many physicians and surgeons such as myself have devoted our lives to the field. The first place we tend to begin to lose fat is from our visceral fat. It is the first to decrease in stores but how long it will take to get rid of it varies on the method chosen to undergo weight loss. The most rapid way is through bariatric surgery (weight loss surgery), the vertical sleeve gastrectomy being the most common approach these days. Diet and exercise programs also are effective at visceral fat loss. In between the two spectrums lies procedural weight loss options and medications. I'm sure we've all seen articles about Wegovy and Ozempic in the news these days touting them as the new miracle drugs for weight loss. It's important to talk to your physician or seek a specialist in weight loss such as myself, a bariatric surgeon who also incorporates medical and procedural weight loss options into their practice who can discuss all of your options with you and get you started on the best path for your particular situation."
Dr. Li shares, "Like fat everywhere in the body, visceral fat can be decreased by not eating (fasting), by increasing your physical activity (exercise), and by eating certain types of food that burn away fat tissue (metabolism-activating foods). Losing visceral fat is not an overnight event. It can take months to reduce it in meaningful amounts. Some foods, such as cayenne pepper, activate fat burning systems. Clinical studies have shown it can reduce visceral fat in 3 months."
Dr. Khubchandani says, "One can try more fiber, proteins, probiotics, fruits, and vegetables. Above all, there is a direct link between consuming sugary, salty, starchy, processed, greasy, and artificially sweetened foods and beverages high in calories and saturated fats. Without controlling salt and sugar intake, it is difficult to lose any type of fat. Not only does excess sugar accumulate as visceral fat, it is linked with a variety of other biochemical and metabolic changes leading to chronic diseases (e.g. heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes). Excess sugar intake can also cause deposition of fat on vital organs (e.g., heart)."
The Worst Thing to do for Visceral Fat
Dr. Lalelazari emphasizes, "The worst thing for visceral fat is something we all do everyday, be sedentary and eat junk food. Diet and exercise are part of the pillars of health and to stray leads to big trouble down the line. We all need to move more and eat healthier. This is the best way to decrease visceral fat and maintain a disease free healthy life."
Dr. Khubchandani advises not to fall for fad diets. "Given that people want to lose weight and are bombarded with advertisements on various types of diets, one has to be very careful. There are a lot of fads and dangerous methods for weight loss floating on the internet and social media. Not only are these methods ineffective, they can derail the function of vital organs like the brain and heart. For example, some studies have suggested that crash diets may actually increase body fat and cause menstrual, cardiovascular, and metabolic abnormalities. Getting rid of visceral fat takes time and commitment, no crash diets or quick fix solutions can help achieve optimum body weight."
Dr. Khubchandani adds, "A frequent mistake is related to exercise duration and frequency. Studies have shown that aerobic training of moderate or high intensity is most likely to help reduce visceral fat tissue. However, this needs to be regular and for a certain duration. For example, an average adult should engage in at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity or a combination of both types. Skipping such routines or occasional/extreme bursts of exercise may not help much with losing visceral fat as it has a tendency of coming back."
Dr. Li states, "Being a couch potato, not exercising, and overeating," is the worst for visceral fat. He adds, "our gut health plays a key role in protecting you from having too much harmful visceral fat. Your microbiome (healthy bacteria) help protect you against the inflammation that comes from excess visceral fat, and it helps to counter the metabolic imbalances caused by visceral fat. So feed your gut bacteria a regular diet of prebiotic foods, as well as fermented probiotic foods."
The Connection Between Lack of Vitamin D and Visceral Fat
According to Dr. Lalelazari, "Increases in visceral fat lead to sequestration of vitamin D in those fat deposits. Obese patient are more likely to be deficient in Vitamin D and indeed most of the patients I treat as a weight loss surgeon tend to have Vitamin D deficiency. Studies do indeed report an inverse relationship with blood vitamin D levels and levels of Vitamin D in visceral fat. Visceral fat influences vitamin D metabolism, storage and its biologic function in our bodies more so than does other types of fat. A strong relationship between waistline and vitamin d deficiency exists so if your waist line fits the bill you should consider having your Vitamin D levels checked!"
Dr. Li says, "Lack of vitamin D has been strongly tied to more visceral fat in a number of clinical studies in both men and women. The exact reason for the connection is unclear. One hypothesis is that less vitamin D allows more calcium to enter adipocytes (fat cells) which in turn helps them grow faster. Another hypothesis is that higher amounts of visceral fat interfere with the body's ability to produce vitamin D hence the connection between obesity and vitamin D deficiency."