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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Visceral fat's impact on health

People often confuse looks with health, yet there are a plethora of reasons why a fit physique is distinct from a healthy body. One that I often point to is the relevance of visceral fat. For the purposes of this discussion, there are two types of fat in your body. Subcutaneous fat is what people generally think of when they think of body fat. It’s the fat that is right below the skin, and is visible around a person’s waist and in other parts of their body. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is only visible via scans of the body. It can also be seen wrapping the internal organs when the abdominal cavity is opened during surgery.


These two types of fat are distinct not only in their location, but also in their function. Subcutaneous fat produces higher levels of leptin (a satiety hormone) and adiponectin, which can increase fat breakdown and improve insulin sensitivity. These signals are basically telling your body that metabolism can increase and consumption can slow down, because there is sufficient energy stored in the subcutaneous fat.


Visceral fat, on the other hand, produces pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines and may contribute to insulin resistance. While the exact mechanisms remain a subject of active research, there seems to be a strong association between visceral fat and poor health outcomes. High amounts of visceral fat are correlated with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There’s even evidence building that more visceral fat can lead to an earlier death. As early as 1999, researchers discovered that the surgical removal of visceral fat can lead to an extension of lifespan in animals.


None of this is to say that subcutaneous fat is beneficial to health. In the surgical intervention study, rats that were simply calorie-restricted lived longer than both the control group and those with visceral fat removed. While some fat mass is essential and healthy, you want to keep both subcutaneous and visceral fat at low levels. This evidence is only to say that visceral fat, while not perceptible from the outside, may be notably damaging to your health. It can be kept at a minimum through diet and exercise, but even if you’re doing well in these regards it’s essential that you look beyond the mirror for a picture of your metabolic health. Blood tests can help to paint the overall picture, while DXA scans are the most cost-effective (albeit still expensive) method by which you can measure your visceral fat.


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