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This Kind of Fat is Most Dangerous, Say Experts

This increases your risk of serious disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab

Generally, putting on excess amounts of body fat is no reason to celebrate. But adding a certain type of body fat is a particular cause for concern. Visceral fat (also known as belly fat or abdominal fat) lies deep within the abdomen, where it sits close to—and can literally poison—various vital organs. That increases your risk of serious disease, including one of the most-feared disorders of aging, a new study has found. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.

1

What Is Visceral Fat?

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat.
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There are two kinds of body fat: subcutaneous fat (the fat that lies just underneath the skin, which you can grab or pinch) and visceral fat. 

Visceral fat lies well beyond your reach, underneath the abdominal muscles. It sits near vital organs like the stomach, intestines, liver, and pancreas. That's dangerous, because visceral fat is actually metabolically active—it releases hormones, toxins and other damaging substances into those nearby organs. 

"Troublemaker fat" is how Dr. Gail Greendale, a professor of medicine at UCLA, recently described visceral fat in the New York Times.

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2

Health Risks of Visceral Fat

Overweight woman discussing test results with doctor in hospital.
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Excess visceral fat raises your risk of serious health conditions, including:

Additionally, a new study has found that carrying extra visceral fat may damage the brain.

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3

Visceral Fat May Impact the Brain, Too

older man with dementia talking to doctor
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The study, published this week in JAMA Network Open, suggests that having excess body fat (both visceral and overall) may increase your risk of reduced cognitive function. The risk of cognitive disorders like dementia (the most common form of which is Alzheimer's disease) increases naturally with age. Carrying extra visceral fat in middle age and beyond may be a prohibitive strike against maintaining optimal brain health in your golden years.

The researchers analyzed the body fat levels of nearly 9,200 people, about 6,700 of whom underwent MRI scans to measure their levels of vascular (blood vessel) injury and abdominal fat. The scientists found that people who had more visceral fat had higher levels of vascular injury and scored lower on cognitive tests—even after adjusting for other risk factors for those conditions. "Strategies to prevent or reduce adiposity [body fat] may preserve cognitive function among adults," the researchers wrote.

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4

How to Know You Might Be At Risk

man measuring waist weight loss
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To gauge if you have excess visceral fat, measure your waist at the belly button. Experts say you're at higher risk of health problems related to visceral fat if your waist is more than 35 inches if you're a woman, or more than 40 inches if you're a man. 

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5

How to Slash Visceral Fat

woman lacing her shoes before a workout

Research suggests these can be effective ways to reduce or prevent belly fat:

  • Get enough sleep. Scientists at Wake Forest University found that dieters who slept five hours or less every night put on 2.5 times more belly fat than people who got a good amount of sleep—seven to nine hours a night. 
  • Exercise regularly. According to a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients, exercise reduces visceral fat even if you don't lose weight. Exercise spurs the liver to burn nearby stores of visceral fat.
  • Avoid added sugar. "​​Fructose, or sugar, causes fat cells to mature faster, specifically in the visceral fat," says the Cleveland Clinic. To burn belly fat, avoid foods high in added sugar, like sugar-sweetened beverages, refined carbs, sweets, and processed foods.
  • Reduce stress. Chronic feelings of stress cause the brain to produce more cortisol, a.k.a. "the stress hormone." Among its functions is a holdover from caveman times: Cortisol tells the body to store fat around the midsection in case it's needed for fuel during an imminent emergency. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
    Michael Martin
    Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more