What Is Visceral Fat? (Everything You Need To Know)

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD
Published by Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD | Medical Doctor
Last updated: December 8, 2023
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When it comes to fat storage, what matters the most is not the sheer percentage of fat but the location where it’s concentrated in the body.

As a doctor, I met countless patients who were not considered overweight by height to weight ratio but carried a disproportionate amount of fat in the abdominal area. This kind of fat is often referred to as visceral fat.

To give you the precise rundown on this subject, I did extensive research. Below, I take a closer look at what visceral fat means exactly and how to target it efficiently.

Let's dive right in.

Quick Summary

  • Visceral fat is a type of abdominal fat stored near vital organs, posing greater health risks than subcutaneous fat.
  • Effective strategies to reduce visceral fat include regular exercise, stress management, and a healthy diet.
  • According to the Adipocyte, about 10% of an individual's body fat is typically visceral fat, which is more harmful to health than subcutaneous fat.
  • In my opinion, increasing public awareness about the dangers of visceral fat is essential for promoting healthier lifestyles and preventing related health issues.

What Exactly Is Visceral Fat?

woman holding her stomach while in undies

Visceral fat is also called hidden fat since it's a kind of abdominal fat that pads the space between your abdominal organs deep under the skin [1].

In my medical practice, I've observed that visceral fat is frequently overlooked despite its health implications.

As a general rule, 90% of the fat a person carries is subcutaneous fat (located right under the skin), and the remaining 10% is visceral fat (located right by the organs), according to the Harvard Health Publishing [2].

Fat accumulated in the lower body area is subcutaneous fat, while the fat in the abdominal area (belly fat)  is, in most cases, visceral [3]. Where we store these extra pounds is determined by several factors, including genetics and hormones, according to the Uppsala University [4].

Visceral fat, hidden within the abdominal cavity and near vital organs, poses greater health risks than the more visible subcutaneous fat, which you can pinch with your fingers.

While subcutaneous fat acts as insulation and energy storage, too much of it can lead to obesity-related health issues.

Regularly assessing your body fat, including subcutaneous levels, is key for maintaining overall health and effective weight management.

Related Article: How To Lose Belly Fat Fast

How It's Measured?

feet view of a person using a weighing scale

From my experience, patients with a slim appearance can still harbor significant visceral fat, a fact often revealed only through detailed CT or MRI scans.

To better understand your visceral fat levels, consider the visceral fat rating scale, which ranges from 1 to 59; a rating between 1 and 12 is deemed healthy. This scale offers a more nuanced insight into your abdominal fat health than traditional measurements.

However, since medical scans are expensive and complicated, doctors usually use different methods to tell if you're at risk of storing too much visceral fat, including:

Body Fat Percentage

Since about 10% of our body fat is visceral fat, you can estimate approximately how much visceral fat you store in your body, according to the Adipocyte [5].

Understanding your body fat percentage is essential for gauging overall health and fitness. In my clinical experience, I've found that a patient's body fat percentage can be a revealing indicator of their overall health and risk for visceral fat-related issues.

This percentage reflects the amount of fat tissue compared to your total body weight, revealing crucial insights into your body composition.

Regular monitoring of this metric helps in tracking changes in fat distribution, guiding your dietary and exercise choices towards a healthier body fat ratio.

Related Article: Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart

Measuring The Waistline

Another method to evaluate your visceral fat percentage and the general risks it poses to your body is to wrap a tape around the waist and measure it without sucking the belly in. According to studies for women, 35 inches or more is a sign of having visceral fat. For men, it's 40 inches [6].

In practice, I often measure patients' waistlines as a quick and practical indicator of their visceral fat levels and associated health risks.

Body Mass Index

Lastly, calculating your BMI( Body Mass Index) can also give you a good idea about your body fat ratio. If your BMI is 30 or over, you're considered overweight and may be at risk of storing a high amount of visceral fat [7].

As a doctor, I frequently use BMI as a preliminary tool to assess the likelihood of increased visceral fat in my patients.

Dangers Of Visceral Fat

woman in stomach pain and and a man in chest pain

In my medical experience, patients with excessive visceral fat often face immediate health challenges, including severe and potentially life-threatening conditions.

Visceral fat is located near several vital organs, including the:

  • Intestines
  • Liver
  • Stomach

And can also store up in the arteries. A higher visceral fat percentage can also contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes or heart disease, according to the Harvard Health Publishing [8].

Other possible health issues include [9]:

  • Insulin Resistance - Visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance even for those who never dealt with diabetes before [10].
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer Disease
  • Heart Attack And Cardiovascular Disease
  • Breast Cancer
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Colorectal Cancer

The presence of high levels of visceral fat can also have psychological and emotional repercussions, including stress, anxiety, and body image concerns. Addressing these aspects is vital for a holistic approach to managing visceral fat and improving overall well-being.

“Carbohydrates trigger insulin release from the pancreas, causing the growth of visceral fat; visceral fat causes insulin resistance and inflammation.”

- William Davis, Cardiologist & Author

How to Get Rid Of Visceral Fat?

couple doing push ups and another using a tape measure on waist

The good news is that because visceral fat is metabolized faster into fatty acids, it responds better to diet and exercise than fat on the lower body area [11]. The best way to lose it is to:

1. Exercise

Include 30- 40 minutes of aerobic activities in your routine such as biking, running, brisk walking, or swimming.

Alongside cardio, weight lifting can help you turn fat into lean muscles, which might support you in burning more calories over time.

That’s because muscle is "active tissue," whereas fat is "inactive tissue.” It means that while fat just sits on your body, muscles require your body to burn energy just to maintain them, according to the research published in PubMed Central [12].

In general, cardio will help you lose pounds, but unlike strength training, it will only provide a temporary metabolic boost that will dissipate quickly in the aftermath of the run or aerobics class.

Unlike cardio exercises that offer a temporary metabolic boost, strength training provides long-lasting benefits that persist even after your workout session.

Therefore, prioritize strength training as an integral part of your fitness regimen to maximize your results.

Reduce Stress

woman in a lotus pose

Stress creates fat. Studies have shown that stress and increased stress hormone (cortisol) can increase the visceral fat surrounding the organs, according to the Yale University [13].

It also means that reducing the stress in your life can make it easier to lose weight and reduce visceral fat.

To fight stress, make sure you get enough sleep each night and try including daily meditations or yoga, or other relaxation techniques in your routine.

Diet

Avoid products that seem to encourage belly fat deposition. These include [14]:

  • Processed Foods
  • Refined Carbs
  • Unhealthy Fats (Trans-fats)
  • Alcohol
  • Sugar and Sugary Beverages

Instead, consume more: 

  • Soluble Fibers (e.g.: flax seeds, avocados, legumes, blackberries)
  • Complex Carbohydrates
  • Lean Protein

Try some of the popular diet approaches and find the one that works best for your body. We have collected a few right here.

FAQs

How Do You Know if You’re Tofi?

You can only know for sure if you're a TOFI if you undergo CT and MRI scans to see your exact body fat percentage. A common sign of being a TOFI is being at your optimal weight but having low levels of lean muscle [15].

What Should My Visceral Fat Number Be?

Your visceral fat number after an MRI (which measures visceral fat on a scale of 1- 59) should not be more than 13 [16].


References:

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/visceral-fat 
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat 
  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it 
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190121103400.htm 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3609102/ 
  6. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-definition/abdominal-obesity/ 
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/index.html 
  8. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it  
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3473928/ 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3725490/ 
  11. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat 
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3762482/
  13. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001120072314.htm 
  14. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/20-tips-to-lose-belly-fat#11.-Get-plenty-of-restful-sleep 
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33040488/
  16. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320929
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About The Author

Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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