Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 30, 2020, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on July 22, 2015.
You may or may not have heard of visceral fat, but it’s definitely something you should be aware of.
So what exactly is visceral fat? And why is it something you should keep an eye on?
To address these questions, let’s first examine the role that Body Mass Index (BMI) plays in masking the potential health effects of visceral fat.
How Can BMI Be Misleading?
Let’s say you are an office worker that may have gained a little bit of weight since starting your new job and you want to assess your body weight. If you are like most, you will use the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is commonly used by physicians, insurance companies, and regular people around the world to determine if a person is considered overweight or obese.
BMI scores are calculated from the US National Institute of Health
After you calculate your score, you compare your BMI score against the Body Mass Index ranges set by the World Health Organization.
Your BMI score of 23.9 falls between 18.5 – 24.9, so you are safe in the normal range. You will take it! But before you celebrate too much, consider this:
Body Mass Index was never intended to be used to measure individuals at all.
Here’s a quote from The World Health Organization:
The BMI provides the most useful population-level measure of overweight and obesity, as it is the same for both sexes and for all ages of adults. However, it should be considered as a rough guide because it may not correspond to the same body fat percentage in different individuals.
Despite this clear message, many doctors, physicians, and regular people continue to use BMI as a diagnostic tool simply out of convenience.
However, relying on BMI as your only health indicator can mask your risk for serious health issues because BMI can’t tell the difference between muscle mass and fat, and more importantly where the fat is distributed. You might have an unpleasant secret hiding behind that healthy BMI.
Let’s test the same individual using a medical-grade body composition analyzer.
Visceral Fat Area is based on the estimated amount of fat surrounding internal organs in the abdomen. It’s recommended that you maintain a Visceral Fat Area of under 100 cm² for optimal health.
Although a higher than the recommended body fat percentage is what most people (and the media) focus on, this individual’s high visceral fat is actually the worst of the two. The reason is that visceral fat acts like another living organ inside your abdominal cavity.
Visceral Fat: What is it and Why is it Important?
Visceral fat is a special kind of belly fat that is hidden deep inside your abdomen and surrounds your inner organs. Unlike-surface level (subcutaneous) fat, it’s not easy to gauge how much visceral fat someone has just by looking at them.
If you rely on BMI as your primary tool to assess weight, you may have significant amounts of visceral fat and not even know it.
Everyone has some visceral fat, but too much of it can increase the risk of serious health issues. Unlike the life-sustaining organs that you were born with, visceral fat actively works from the inside out to sabotage those organs and disrupt your bodily functions.
According to Harvard University, visceral fat secretes several hormones and chemicals. One type of these chemicals that visceral fat produces is called cytokines. Cytokines play an essential role in the human body, but increased levels of cytokines due to excess visceral fat can be problematic.
Once cytokines enter the liver, they influence the production of blood lipids, which has been linked to higher cholesterol and insulin resistance, potentially leading to type 2 diabetes, a very serious health risk.
Type 2 diabetes is typically associated with people who are overweight or obese, and individuals whose BMI is above the normal range (18.5-24.9) are said to face significantly greater health risks. However, BMI can misrepresent people who are either near or slightly over the 24.99 mark.
But that’s not all—individuals with a normal BMI but high visceral fat level share similar risk profiles as those who are visibly obese. Maintaining a high amount of visceral fat can contribute to a multitude of health complications, including high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and depression.
Depending on lifestyle factors, many people have a body profile like our previous example: large amounts of abdominal visceral fat yet a “normal” BMI because they don’t have much skeletal muscle mass. Due to the trend towards sedentary lifestyles, excess visceral fat is becoming more and more common.
What Causes Visceral Fat?
A caloric surplus can result in excess visceral fat. Unsurprisingly, visceral fat develops as a result of adopting unhealthy lifestyle habits. Some of these factors include:
- Little or no exercise or avoiding functional exercises that build muscle
- Poor diet high in carbohydrates, saturated fat, and empty calories
- Poor sleep habits
- Excessive alcohol consumption
For people living sedentary lifestyles, it is quite easy to pick up several of these unhealthy habits. Over time, these habits will lead to increased amounts of body fat, including visceral fat.
How to Measure Visceral Fat
Here are three options:
1. Waist Measurement
According to the Mayo Clinic, using a measuring tape to measure your waistline is a fairly good way to estimate your visceral fat content. If your waist measures over 35 inches for women or over 40 inches men, you may be carrying too much visceral fat.
2. Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) Scan
One of the most precise methods of determining the amount of visceral fat deposits is by taking a DEXA test. But this requires access to a facility that has a unit, and a test can be expensive.
3. Professional Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA)
A great alternative to a DEXA test may be a medical BIA test. These tests measure the resistance of an electric current as it travels through your body to determine your body fat percentage, which includes your visceral fat.
Advanced BIA devices that take direct segmental measurements can report visceral fat content, although you would need to ensure that the device you are using has this capability.
Knowing your body composition will give you a much better idea about your amount of visceral fat than BMI can.
If your weight and/or BMI is considered “normal” but your body composition test reveals that you have a high body fat percentage and low muscle mass (as with people who are skinny fat), you might want to consider making some lifestyle changes to reduce your visceral fat and risk of developing serious health complications like heart disease in the future.
If your body composition test provides your BMR, use that number to help determine your daily caloric needs as part of your weight loss strategy. Remember, it is important to seek medical advice from your doctor before you set out to lose visceral fat.
How Do You Lose Visceral Fat?
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is your best bet.
This study revealed that 3 sessions of interval training (20 minutes per session) for 12 weeks resulted in a 17 percent reduction in visceral fat.
Furthermore, two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training has been shown to increase a woman’s capacity for fat oxidation. This means your metabolism gets a temporary boost hours after you exercise.
Hopefully, this clears things up for you when it comes to visceral fat. BMI cannot determine if you are lean, overweight, or somewhere in between—it’s all just vague numbers. It also cannot tell you how much visceral fat you’re carrying.
If you have a “normal” weight and BMI, don’t think your visceral fat level is nothing to worry about! It’s easy to just fall into the trap and think “I may be chubbier but I’m not obese, so I don’t have to lose weight” or “I guess I just have good genes, so I’m always going to look underweight.”
No one should expect to eat a diet high in calories and saturated fat while ignoring exercise like strength training and expect to have a healthy amount of visceral fat their entire life.
The good news is, if you exercise, watch your calories, and live a generally healthy lifestyle, you’re going to avoid gaining too much visceral fat.
Body composition testing will always give you much more information than your BMI ever will, and can give you a much better picture of everything that makes up your weight, including your visceral fat.
Remember—“what gets measured, gets managed,” so go take a body composition test and find out your visceral fat level!