Let’s be honest—no one wants to carry extra weight around their middle, and it’s normal to want to look and feel your very best. But there might be an even more important reason to lose excess belly fat: There’s a specific type of abdominal fat, called visceral fat that’s not the same as the subcutaneous kind. And it can actually be more damaging to your health than you may realize. Here’s what to know.
Subcutaneous fat is stored just beneath your skin. You can pinch it between your fingers, and it’s fairly harmless. On the other hand, visceral fat is stored deep in the abdomen, behind your stomach muscles. It can also surround vital organs like your liver, intestines, and even your heart. While some visceral fat is healthy and protects your organs, too much increases your risk for serious health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. In fact, studies show that high levels of visceral fat are a major risk factor in developing cardiometabolic conditions like hypertension as well as type 2 diabetes. For every 2 pounds of visceral fat women carry, research has found that the risk of developing type 2 diabetes goes up by 7 percent.
Environmental factors like a poor diet, stress, and lack of physical activity can all increase visceral fat to unhealthy levels. But several other factors that could impact how much belly fat you have.
As you get older, fat can shift from subcutaneous to visceral. According to research published in Frontiers of Endocrinology, this redistribution is primarily due to the changes in your sex hormones. For example, a decline in testosterone with age is strongly associated with visceral fat accumulation in men.
2. Your biological sex
Your gender at birth also plays a role in how much visceral fat you have. Men tend to have more of it than pre-menopausal women (who are more prone to storing subcutaneous fat). This mainly male-pattern “belly fat” is because fats consumed in foods are more easily converted into visceral fat. For women in menopause, fat distribution and storage often move from the hips to the waist (with a 44% increase in visceral fat mass). This may be due to hormonal changes like declining estrogen and increased androgen levels since these hormones influence where the body stores fat.
Though there’s a lot to learn about how your DNA impacts fat distribution, research has shown that genetics can determine body shape and how you store visceral fat. Research has found that up to 60% of body fat distribution is determined by genetic factors.
As always, talk to your provider about any health concerns. Ask them about the specific guidelines they use to measure body fat. Visceral fat makes up 6-20 percent of your total body fat. You can calculate your level by taking 10 percent of your total body fat percentage and then taking off another 10 percent. (The amount is usually higher for men and lower for women.)
If your body fat percentage is higher than recommended, your visceral fat range may be too. Here are a few ways you can use to measure your visceral body fat:
Waist size: Wrap a tape measure around your belly just above your hip bones. For men, a measurement of 40 inches or more means you’re at higher risk for health issues stemming from visceral fat. For women, that number is 35 inches or more.
Waist-to-hip ratio: Measure your waist and then measure your hips (around the widest part). Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement. A waist-to-hip ratio higher than 0.90 in men and 0.85 in women indicates excess levels of belly fat.
Body Mass Index (BMI): BMI isn’t perfect, but it can help indicate body fat based on height and weight. Although this method isn’t fool-proof, a BMI of 30 or more means you likely have higher visceral fat levels.
Waist-height ratio: Some healthcare providers prefer this method of measuring visceral fat because other methods aren’t as accurate at distinguishing between visceral and subcutaneous fat. Simply divide your waist size by your height. A healthy ratio is no greater than 0.5 for both men and women.
Eat the rainbow.
Make sure to fill your plate with whole foods that are colorful and nutrient-dense—and aim to minimize refined sugar and unhealthy fats. A healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats has been found to help reduce visceral fat. (Check out our Found plate guide to help get you pointed in the right direction!)
Upping your physical activity can improve your metabolic health and reduce visceral fat. Of course, if you’re overweight or obese and have limited mobility and cardiovascular fitness, going on an eight-mile run isn’t a very realistic ask. However, HIIT workouts (high-intensity interval training) can be done when you’re short on time and can help move the needle. HIIT workouts cycle between bursts of intense effort and recovery time and can help you burn fat faster than longer, steady-state workouts. But if HIIT’s not your thing, there’s another exciting form of movement that can vastly reduce belly fat: walking! Studies show that both slow- and fast-paced walking can reduce visceral fat and improve overall health.
Get a good night’s sleep
Missing out on Zzzs can increase your risk of storing visceral fat. Aim for at least 7 hours (or more!). Turn off devices 30 minutes to an hour before bed (the light they emit messes with sleep patterns) and try reading something light or journaling to help you wind down, instead.
A hormone in your body called cortisol—you know, the one that activates your body’s “fight-or-flight” response—can trigger visceral fat storage. Stress is a part of life. But look for ways to manage unnecessary stressors when you can. Yoga, meditation, chatting with a friend, or a long bath are all great ways to help lower your stress levels.