It’s healthy to have some body fat, but as it turns out, all fat is not created equal. Visceral fat, sometimes called “active fat,” is a type of body fat that’s stored within the abdominal cavity near several vital organs, including the liver, stomach, and intestines. It can also build up in the arteries. Visceral fat is sometimes referred to as “active fat” because it can actively increase the risk of serious health problems.
If you have some belly fat, that’s not necessarily visceral fat. Belly fat can also be subcutaneous fat, stored just under the skin; you can see this fat more easily, like what we see on our arms and legs. Visceral fat is actually inside the abdominal cavity, and isn’t easily seen.
Rating and measurements
The only way to definitively diagnose visceral fat is with a CT or MRI scan. However, these are expensive and time-consuming procedures.
Instead, general guidelines are typically used to evaluate your visceral fat and its risk on your body. Harvard Health, for example, says that about 10 percent of all body fat is visceral fat. If you calculate your total body fat and then take 10 percent of it, you can estimate your amount of visceral fat.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, an easy way to tell if you may be at risk is by measuring your waist size. If you’re a woman with a waist size of 40 inches or more, or a man with a waist size of 35 inches or more, you’re more likely to have health problems from visceral fat.
Visceral fat is often evaluated on a scale of 1 to 59 when diagnosed with body fat analyzers or MRI scans. Healthy levels of visceral fat stay under 13. If your rating is 13–59, immediate lifestyle changes are needed.
Visceral fat can start causing health problems immediately, including increasing insulin resistance even if you’ve never had diabetes or prediabetes. Research has found that this may be because a retinol-binding protein is secreted by this type of fat, which increases insulin resistance. Visceral fat can also raise blood pressure quickly.
Most importantly, carrying excess visceral fat increases your risk for developing several very serious long-term, life-threatening medical conditions. These include:
How to get rid of visceral fat
No matter how much visceral fat we have, it’s a good idea to reduce it further. Fortunately, visceral fat is extremely receptive to exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes. With each pound you lose, you lose some visceral fat.
You should exercise for at least 30 minutes every day when possible. Make sure to include plenty of both cardio exercises and strength training. Cardio includes aerobic exercise, like circuit training, biking, or running, and will burn fat faster. Strength training on the other hand will slowly burn more calories over time as your muscles get stronger and consume more energy. Ideally, you’ll do 30 minutes of cardio five days a week and strength training at least three times per week.
The stress hormone cortisol can actually increase the storage of visceral fat, so reducing the stress in your life will make it easier to lose it. Practice medication, deep breathing, and stress management tactics.
It’s also essential to follow a healthy, well-balanced diet. Eliminate processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods from your diet, and include more lean proteins, vegetables, and complex carbs like sweet potatoes, beans, and lentils.
Use low-fat cooking methods, such as broiling, boiling, or baking, instead of frying. When you do use oils, go for healthier ones like olive oil instead of butter or peanut oil.
When to see your doctor
If your waist size is 40 inches or more as a woman or 35 inches or more as a man, you should make an appointment to see your doctor and discuss health risks and lifestyle changes.
Your doctor can check for health risks associated with high incidence of visceral fat with tests like blood work or ECG scans, and they may refer you to a nutritionist.
Visceral fat isn’t visible, so we don’t always know it’s there, making it that much more dangerous. Fortunately, it’s preventable. By maintaining a healthy, active, low-stress lifestyle, we can prevent visceral fat from building up in excess in our abdominal cavity.