Think about the old real estate phrase, “It’s all about location, location, location.” This is equally true when it comes to body fat. All of us store fat in different ways, and as a result, our bodies are all shaped differently. For example, some people store most of their fat in their thighs while others have the majority of body fat in their upper body. Your body’s fat impacts your health and longevity differently depending on where it’s stored.
Our bodies store two different fat types: subcutaneous and visceral. While they both contribute to your body’s weight equally, they are located in different places and have a different effect on your health.
Subcutaneous fat is the jiggly fat visible just under the skin. Subcutaneous fat is normally harmless and may even protect against some diseases.
Visceral fat is fat stored deep within your abdominal cavity, behind and surrounding your abdominal organs. Though not visible from the outside, visceral fat is associated with numerous diseases.
Just as it is with your weight, genetics play a role in whether your body will primarily store visceral or subcutaneous fat. But environmental factors such as diet and exercise play a key role as well. You can play a significant role in how your fat is managed by taking steps to stop its accumulation.
Body fat is necessary for use as energy when you are active, as well as for the protection of your skeleton and organs. Research suggests that fat cells — particularly abdominal fat cells — are biologically active, meaning your fat stores are like an organ or gland which produces hormones and other substances that can profoundly affect your health. Studies show that excess abdominal fat, particularly visceral fat, can disrupt your normal hormonal balance and organ function.
Scientists are also learning that visceral fat pumps out immune system chemicals called cytokines that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These and other biochemicals are thought to have a negative effect on insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and blood clotting. The proteins and hormones released by visceral fat also have more inflammatory properties than the substances released by subcutaneous fat.
Visceral fat near the liver can negatively influence the production of blood lipids, resulting in an increase in your LDL (bad) cholesterol, a decrease in your HDL (good) cholesterol and increased insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means that your body’s muscle and liver cells don’t respond adequately to normal levels of insulin, the pancreatic hormone that carries glucose into the body’s cells. Insulin resistance causes blood glucose levels to rise, heightening the risk for diabetes. This is doubly miserable because it means that the more visceral fat you have the harder it is to control your weight!
There’s no sure-fire way to tell visceral from subcutaneous fat short of an expensive CT scan, but it is good to know how you are storing fat, and there are a few easy ways to get a good idea. Here are a few tricks to figure out where your belly stands:
Are you an apple or a pear? These two fruits give a quick visual of where most of the fat is stored on the body. Pears tend to store fat in the lower extremities (hips, thighs, buttocks) as subcutaneous fat while apples tend to store fat in the upper region (belly, chest) as visceral fat.
Another way to distinguish between the two types of fat on your body is the pinch test.
Subcutaneous fat is the pinchable, squishy fat right between your skin and muscle that helps keep you warm, cushions you against shock and stores extra calories. While most fat found on other parts of our bodies (think arms, legs and buttocks) are considered subcutaneous fat, belly fat is more likely to be visceral.
Visceral fat stores calories too, but you can’t pinch it because it is hidden deep within the belly region, behind your muscles. If you can’t pinch the fat on your belly, your belly is firm when you press it and your belly is bigger than it should be, you most likely have stores of visceral fat deep in your abdominal cavity surrounding your organs.
When it comes to fat, it is generally better to be a woman. Women tend to have more body fat overall than men do. However, while women are more likely to develop subcutaneous fat, men are more prone to storing visceral fat. This is simply due to the differences in hormone production between men and women. After menopause, many women tend to develop more visceral fat, which diminishes the health advantage of being a woman. This tendency to store visceral fat means that men, and post-menopausal women, are actually more prone to fat-related illnesses and conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.
When you lose weight, visceral fat diminishes more quickly and easily. It’s the subcutaneous fat, the more obvious but less lethal type, that sticks around longer. That is one of the reasons doctors will tell you that no matter how much weight you have to lose, there are huge health benefits to losing even 10% of your body weight. Most of that will likely be visceral fat loss and your body will be able to function much more effectively.
Our bodies store two types of fat and one is more harmful to us than the other. Of the two types, visceral fat is more dangerous because it produces chemicals and hormones that can be toxic to the body and the organs it surrounds.
On the plus side, visceral fat is the first to go when you lose weight. This is why doctors will tell you that no matter how much weight you have to lose, there are huge health benefits to losing even 10% of your body weight, as this will likely be visceral fat loss. Any reduction in visceral fat is a big step towards better health because it allows your body to function more effectively.