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Fat stored deep inside your body may be hidden from view, but it’s dangerous. Here’s how to find out if you have hidden body fat, and what you can do about it.
What is visceral body fat?
Visceral body fat, also known as 'hidden' fat, is fat that’s stored deep inside your belly, wrapped around your organs, including the liver and intestines. It makes up about one tenth of all the fat stored in your body.
Most fat is stored underneath the skin and is known as subcutaneous fat. That's the fat you can see and feel when you pinch your skin. The rest of the fat in your body is hidden. That's visceral fat, and it makes your belly stick out or gives you an 'apple' shape.
Fat doesn’t just sit there. It produces chemicals and hormones that can be toxic to the body. Hidden body fat produces more of these substances than fat under the skin so it’s more dangerous. Even in thin people, having a greater proportion of visceral fat carries a range of health risks.
What are the health risks of visceral fat?
Having visceral fat in the belly is a sign of metabolic syndrome, a collection of disorders that include high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and insulin resistance which together increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Having visceral fat in the belly can cause:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- liver disease
- high blood pressure
- gall bladder disease and gout
- fertility problems
- lower back pain
How do I know if I have visceral fat?
The best way to tell if you have visceral fat is to measure your waist. Your waist measurement is a good indicator of how much fat is deep inside your belly, around your organs. Measuring your Body Mass Index (BMI) is also a good way to tell whether you are carrying too much fat. If you think your waist measurement may be too large, talk to your doctor.
Another way to diagnose visceral fat is to have an MRI scan. However, that’s expensive and your doctor would not normally order a scan to diagnose visceral fat.
How can I reduce visceral fat?
The best way to reduce visceral fat is through exercise. Visceral fat responds better to diet and exercise than fat on the hips. Exercise also stops visceral fat from coming back.
Another option is medication, but studies show this is not as effective in reducing visceral fat as exercise. Liposuction does not work to remove visceral fat.
Even though you can’t change your genetics, hormones or your age, you can lose weight and minimise your visceral fat by:
- exercising for at least 30 minutes every day (for example, by brisk walking or cycling slowly), while both aerobic exercise and strength training will also reduce visceral fat
- eating a healthy diet
- not smoking
- reducing sugary drinks
- getting enough sleep
What causes visceral fat?
- Fat gets stored when you consume too many calories and have too little physical activity. Some people tend to store fat around their belly rather than on the hips because of their genes.
- In women, getting older can change where the body stores fat. Especially after menopause women’s muscle mass gets less and their fat increases. As women age, they are more likely to develop more visceral fat in the belly, even if they don’t put on weight.
- In men, age and genetics also play a role in developing visceral fat. Drinking alcohol can also lead to more belly fat in men.
Resources and support
For more information and support, try these resources:
- Get Healthy is a free telephone service that is available in NSW, Queensland and South Australia that is staffed by qualified health coaches who supports adults to make lifestyle changes regarding healthy eating, physical activity and reaching and/or maintaining a healthy weight.
- LiveLighter is another program which aims to encourage Australians to make changes to what they eat and drink, and to be more active.
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Last reviewed: June 2019