The Dangers of Visceral Fat

In a previous blog post we outlined the term metabolic double jeopardy.  This term refers to a condition where having a amount of body fat (obesity) can lead to sarcopenia.  Sarcopenia refers to the loss of muscle mass in your body, resulting in loss of strength and/or impaired function.  

We examined the causal relationship between high body fat and negative health conditions for your body.

However, not all body fat is equal…

We outlined the negative implications of visceral (or internal) body fat and how it contributes to inflammation and thus chronic health conditions. In this blog post we delve into the specific dangers of visceral fat deeper; and contrast visceral fat with subcutaneous fat (the fat stored just beneath our skin). Subcutaneous fat is what you can feel in your arms or thighs.  It is immediately superficial to your skin.

What is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat is the deeper fat stored within our abdominal cavity and thus surrounds the internal organs of your body.  These organs include your stomach, liver and your kidneys.

It is possible to be skinny and still have dangerous levels of visceral fat.  This may lead to inflammation, insulin resistance and cardiovascular conditions.

Excessive fat around your stomach will generally comprise of both visceral and subcutaneous fat. The fat you can feel and even pinch directly under your skin is subcutaneous fat; whilst the deeper intra-abdominal fat surrounding your vital organs is visceral fat.

Visceral Fat is stored around your abdomen

Why is Visceral Fat Detrimental to your Health?

Visceral fat secretes adipokines which play a role in chronic inflammation This act on other tissues and organs and cause adverse health effects. A growing body of evidence suggests inflammation acts as the key initiating event for atherosclerosis (build-up of plague in your arteries).  

Other factors also contributing to atherosclerosis include a poor diet that is high in sugar, lack of physical activity, poor sleep and insulin resistance.

An increase in visceral fat also contributes to insulin resistance. In simple terms, when greater fat mass surrounds your organs and tissue; it makes it more difficult for glucose uptake to occur into your cells.

If we were to compare two individuals both with an identical level of total fat mass – but one of these individuals had 50% more visceral adipose tissue (VAT) surrounding their internal organs;  than this individual would be at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes (due to greater insulin resistance), cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.

Visceral Fat versus Subcutaneous Fat

Alternatively, small amounts of subcutaneous fat can act as a protective mechanism within your body.  It secretes Leptin, which stimulates the hypothalamus in our brain to release adiponectin. Adiponectin is a hormone that increases insulin sensitivity, thus regulating our blood glucose levels by enabling enhanced uptake from the bloodstream and into the tissues. This helps to prevent Type 2 diabetes.

Hence, whilst it is not good to have excessive amounts of subcutaneous fat, small amounts may be healthy. 

It is the amount of visceral fat within your body which is of the utmost concern to us as Exercise Physiologists.  Understanding the negative health consequences is the first step for you to make changes to your lifestyle. 

In our clinical experience, high levels of visceral fat is often an unknown problem for people within a ‘healthy’ body mass index (BMI) range.  And as such, being tested for visceral fat levels is something we highly recommend you do.