Adipose, or fat, is more complex than you think. We know that fat is a stored form of energy, but studies show that adipose cells, or fat cells, secrete a variety of chemicals, like leptin, that affect appetite and resting metabolic rate. Plus, adipose (fat) cells release chemicals called adipokines of which there are over 50 types. Adipokines are significant because some cause inflammation in the body. Low-grade inflammation may explain why some obese people have a higher risk of some forms of cancer. In fact, research shows that obesity increases the odds of developing at least 10 distinct types of cancer.
It might also surprise you to learn that fat cells produce chemicals that affect how cells process glucose and that impact lipid metabolism, blood coagulation, and blood pressure. It should dispel the myth that fat is only a storehouse for energy and an insulator to help you stay warm when it’s cold outside.
Some of the most active fat is called visceral fat, the kind that builds up in your pelvic cavity and deposits around organs like the liver. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a growing health problem in Western countries and the biggest risk factor for developing it is obesity. How do you distinguish it from less sinister fat? The loose fat you can pinch between your fingers is garden-variety subcutaneous fat and is less of a problem health wise than deeper visceral fat. Visceral fat build-up increases with age, especially in people who are less active.
According to research, high levels of visceral fat are a marker for a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Yet, there isn’t a quick and easy way to measure the exact amount of visceral fat you have hiding in your pelvic cavity. You can get a precise measure with imaging studies such as CT or MRI, however, these studies are expensive, and a CT scan exposes you to radiation.
How Much Visceral Fat is Too Much?
People often talk about the dangers of carrying too much visceral fat. When you see someone walking around with a protuberant belly, you know they’re carrying more visceral fat than they should. Yet, in certain parts of the world, even normal or underweight people possess large amounts of visceral fat despite having a normal body mass index. (BMI) For example, type 2 diabetes is common among Asian Indians, even those of normal weight, because they have higher amounts of visceral fat. Therefore, you can’t use body weight or BMI as an indicator you don’t have too much visceral fat.
The average healthy person will have about 10% visceral fat and 90% subcutaneous fat, the kind you can pinch, and is less of a health threat. One way to get an idea of whether you have too much visceral fat is to use waist size as a proxy. To do this, use a tape measure to get an accurate measure of your waist size. Here’s how:
- Place the tape measure around your waist at the level of your navel.
- Exhale before checking the measurement.
- Don’t hold your breath or pull the tape measure too tight.
- Write the number down.
Don’t use an old tape measure, as they stretch over time and will give you a less accurate reading.
When should you be concerned about your waist size? Women should have a waist size no greater than 35 inches. Some sources say that your waist size should be no more than half of your height. For example, if you’re 5 feet 6 inches, your waistline should measure no more than 33 inches. Even less than that is ideal. In fact, the Nurses Health Study found that women who had a waist size larger than 35 inches had double the risk of dying of heart disease and cancer relative to women who had a waist size of less than 28 inches.
How to Reduce Visceral Fat
As you age, you may notice your waist size increase, a sign that you’re developing more visceral fat. The reason you gain visceral fat is partly because of hormonal changes, a drop in estrogen and progesterone, and a rise in cortisol. However, inactivity plays a big role too. In fact, one of the best ways to keep visceral fat under control is to stay active, both strength training and aerobic exercise. Studies show that exercise helps curb visceral fat, and high-intensity exercise may offer more benefits than low to moderate-intensity exercise. High-intensity strength training helps too.
As you might expect, diet plays a role too. The best move to make to slash visceral fat is to cut back on or eliminate ultra-processed carbohydrates and sugar. Not only do these items add to your visceral fat burden, a study in the British Medical Journal of over 100,000 people found those who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of stroke and heart attacks.
Don’t stop there though. Two other factors, lack of quality sleep and uncontrolled stress can add inches to your waistline. Not sleeping enough and not controlling stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, a stress hormone that redistributes fat from your lower body to your upper body and belly. Shift your bedtime to an earlier time, if possible, to ensure that your sleep habits are in touch with your body’s natural circadian rhythms, as established by your biological clock. Skip the late-night snacks too! Some studies suggest they contribute to weight gain. Sip a cup of herbal tea instead.
The Bottom Line
Now you have a better idea of how much visceral fat is too much and that your waistline is a good indicator. Keep tabs on your waist size and make sure your lifestyle habits are consistent with your goal of reducing visceral fat.
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