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Reasons You Might Be Genetically Predisposed to Visceral Fat

Here’s why your belly fat isn’t your fault.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Visceral fat is the sneakiest fat in the body—tucked away deep under the muscle in the abdomen, visceral fat—also known as belly fat—can't be seen and felt, unlike subcutaneous fat which you can touch (for example on your thighs or your buttocks). Visceral fat surrounds major organs in your abdomen such as your intestines and stomach, which is why it's so dangerous—belly fat is linked to many serious health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and should never be ignored. "Regardless of a person's genetic profile, physical activity and reducing calorie intake can prevent obesity and abdominal obesity — and prevent it from progressing," says Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and preventive cardiology at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute, New Orleans. Here are five reasons you might be predisposed to visceral fat that have nothing to do with lifestyle. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Your Parents Are Obese

Man and woman holding their bellies while sitting on the bed suffering from extra weight.

There is a clear correlation between having overweight parents and being overweight: One study showed that 35-40% of a child's BMI is inherited from their parents. "This gives an important and rare insight into how obesity is transmitted across generations in both developed and developing countries," says Professor Peter Dolton of the University of Sussex. "We found that the process of intergenerational transmission is the same across all the different countries. This shows that the children of obese parents are much more likely to be obese themselves when they grow up — the parental effect is more than double for the most obese children what it is for the thinnest children. These findings have far-reaching consequences for the health of the world's children. They should make us rethink the extent to which obesity is the result of family factors, and our genetic inheritance, rather than decisions made by us as individuals."



unhappy woman sits on couch, hand on forehead

For women, menopause can cause changes in the body which encourage the storage of fat in the abdominal area. "This is a physiological change that, unfortunately, really happens to virtually all women as we age," says Victoria Vieira-Potter, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. "It's not something you did."

"What worries me is that women who are trying to do right by themselves and keep up their exercise habits and eat a good diet may feel defeated if their belly fat doesn't budge," says Dr. Gail Greendale, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "They may be doing everything they can, and their central fat may just have a mind of its own."

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Air Pollution

Asian boy wearing mouth mask against air pollution

There is growing evidence linking environmental pollution to belly fat—one study from the University of Ohio showed that air pollution could lead to increased abdominal fat, even with a normal diet. "This is one of the first, if not the first, study to show that these fine particulates directly cause inflammation and changes in fat cells, both of which increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes," says Qinghua Sun, associate professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. 

"These findings suggest that fine particulate pollution exposure alone, in the presence of a normal diet, may lead to an increase in fat cell size and number, and also have a proinflammatory effect," says Sanjay Rajagopalan, senior author of the study and the John W. Wolfe Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Ohio State.

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Birth Weight

doctor in operation room,give birth

Studies show that babies born at a too low or too high birth weight have a higher risk of developing visceral fat as adults. "The 5-pound baby, regardless of whether he grows up to be obese, normal weight or thin is going to have more visceral adiposity than a similar child with a normal birthweight," says Dr. Brian Stansfield, neonatologist at the Children's Hospital of Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

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An "Apple-Shaped" Body

Female doctor measuring waist of overweight woman with measuring tape in clinic.

There is evidence that some people are more genetically disposed to have "apple" shaped bodies, which is associated with insulin resistance and diabetes. "We tried to find out if there's a common genetic factor that is shared among people who have a greater fat distribution at the abdomen and also have insulin resistance, and this appears to be the case," says Yuling Hong, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of biostatistics. 

"There is good evidence that this deeper, visceral fat is associated more with diabetes," says Dabeeru C. Rao, Ph.D., director of the Division of Biostatistics, professor of biostatistics and principal investigator for the study.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan