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I'm a Doctor and Here's the #1 Sign You Have Visceral Fat

Doctor explains the difference between abdominal fat and visceral fat and how to tell if you have it.

An expanding waistline is something that can happen to anyone, especially as we age. While having a little abdominal fat is normal and nothing to worry about, visceral fat on the other hand is worrisome because it's a hidden health issue most people don't know about. Visceral fat is buried deep within your belly and wraps around your vital organs. It can cause serious health problems like Alzheimer's disease, cancer and more. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with 

Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, aka "The VibrantDoc", a recognized leader in functional medicine and author of the new self-care book Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Reverse Aging, and Glow who revealed signs you have visceral fat. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What is Visceral Fat

Visceral fat and subcutaneous fat that accumulate around waistline of woman.

Dr. Stephenson explains, "While everyone has some visceral fat to cushion organs, too much builds up and impairs organ function, increases inflammation, and raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and possibly some cancers, like breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. Some research shows that visceral fat is a greater predictor of cancer risk than just being overweight."

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Firm Tummy

woman's abdomen and belly button, she is touching her slim stomach with two hands

Even if you're not overweight, Dr. Stephenson says you can have visceral fat. "That soft squishy stuff on your abdomen is subcutaneous fat, just below the skin. This is less harmful than visceral fat, which is packed behind the abdominal wall, around internal organs. Because the visceral fat is behind the muscles, it pushes them out but you can't feel it so all you feel is the abdominal wall. If you have a protruding pot belly but it's firm, not squishy, that's a good sign that you have visceral fat."

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Check Your Waist Circumference


Dr. Stephenson says, "For women, waist circumference has been strongly correlated with levels of visceral fat seen on MRI scans—a waist circumference of 35 inches or greater is a good indicator of visceral fat. In men, the sagittal measurement was a more accurate measurement of visceral fat than waist circumference. To get a sagittal measurement, lie on a firm surface with your knees bent and back flat on the ground, then measure the distance from the ground straight up to the level of the top of the abdomen, at the place where it is the highest. Waist circumference was a greater indicator of subcutaneous fat for men. A sagittal abdominal measurement of greater than 9 to 12 inches (depending on what research you are looking at) is an indication of visceral fat."

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Measure your Waist-to-Hip Ratio

Person measuring their waste line

"Doctors have typically measured visceral fat with expensive scanning instruments, but a 2020 study showed that a simple waist-to-hip ratio is nearly as accurate in determining visceral fat.," Dr. Stephenson says. "Research has determined that waist-to-hip ratio is strongly correlated with visceral fat—and all you need is a tape measure. According to the World Health Organization, a ratio of .85 or higher for women and .90 or higher for men indicates excessive visceral fat, and a ratio higher than 1 means a significantly elevated chronic disease risk. To determine your waist-to-hip ratio, measure your waist at its smallest point, then measure your hips at their widest point. Divide your waist size by your hip size. That number is your ratio."

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Lifestyle Choices

Woman falling asleep on sofa in front TV. Tired exhausted lonely sleepy lady in pajamas sleeping in front of television sitting on cozy couch in living room, closing eyes while watching movie at night

Dr. Stephenson states, "There are many theories about why some people develop more visceral fat and others develop more subcutaneous fat. In general, weight gain overall is likely to increase visceral fat, but genetics can play a part in where your body tends to store fat. More significant factors, though, are lifestyle-related and under your control. One study that looked at lifestyle factors associated with increased abdominal fat over 5 years showed that the two most meaningful factors were exercise level and soluble fiber intake. The study showed that people who were moderately active had a 7.4% decrease in visceral fat accumulation than those who were less active, and that for each 10 gram increase in soluble fiber, the rate of visceral fat accumulation decreased by 3.7%." 

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Businesswoman tries to cope with nervous tension or anxiety

According to Dr. Stephenson, "Another significant player is chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A study out of Yale University showed that women who were not overweight but were highly stressed tended to have excess abdominal fat coinciding with high cortisol levels. Another study of women with obesity showed that women with more abdominal fat had higher stress levels, higher cortisol secretion, and evaluated stressful situations as more threatening, and women who were leaner but had more abdominal fat also secreted more cortisol than leaner women with less abdominal fat." And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather