The Dangers of Visceral Fat


Q) I am a fit 50-something, but my GP says I have excess visceral fat. What is it and what can I do about it?

A) Unlike the blobby, more benign subcutaneous fat just under your skin, visceral fat is stored deeply, wrapping itself around the heart, liver, kidneys and pancreas and even creeping through muscles. ‘Visceral fat is the dangerous kind, caused by a high carbohydrate diet and sedentary behaviour,’ says Professor David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum.

‘Subcutaneous fat on the thighs, hips and stomach may create mechanical problems such as arthritis of the hips and knees, but doesn’t tend to cause metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer or Alzheimer’s disease,’ he explains. ‘Visceral fat pumps toxic chemicals called adipocytokines into the bloodstream. These create chronic low-grade inflammation and disrupt healthy metabolism [the way your body works to create energy and keep you functioning].’ Visceral fat may also affect your mood.

Unlike subcutaneous fat, you cannot see visceral fat. However, Harvard University notes that overweight or obese people are likely to have excess visceral fat, as it makes up about ten per cent of total body fat.

‘A pot belly on a man suggests visceral fat, but diagnosing it in a fit 50-year-old woman needs more complex analysis,’ says Professor Haslam. Simple measurements including body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio do not give an accurate picture ‘as they could indicate either type of fat’.

For your GP to diagnose visceral fat, it is likely that you had a bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), which is available on a GP budget. BIA estimates body composition, including fat, by measuring the impedance or opposition to the flow of an electrical current through body tissues. The gold-standard way to detect excess visceral fat is an MRI scan, but this is not cheap.

Just as a high-carb diet and lack of activity cause visceral fat, a healthy low-carb diet (plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, some lean protein and unsaturated fats) plus regular daily exercise will reduce levels of this hidden enemy. Limiting alcohol and managing your stress levels are important, as is getting a good night’s sleep. And if you smoke, please stop.

Some research suggests that a supplement containing inulin, such as Lepicol (£12.77), may help with the loss of weight and visceral fat.

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