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What is Belly Fat? The Difference Between Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat

The technical term for fat tissue in the body is adipose tissue. Adipose tissue is a loose connective tissue mostly composed of adipocytes (fat cells) and plays a major role in the storage of energy in the form of lipids (fats). Adipose tissue also serves as an important cushion and insulates the body from heat and cold. There are many factors that influence the amount and distribution of fat tissue throughout the body including physical, psychological, social, economic and health factors. Besides its passive function, fat tissue has been recognized as a major endocrine organ because it produces hormones such as leptin, estrogen, resistin and the cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha, for example.

The adipose tissue beneath the skin is called subcutaneous adipose tissue (or subcutaneous fat), whereas the fat lining internal organs is termed visceral adipose tissue (or visceral fat). There are considerable anatomical differences in the distribution of these two adipose tissues in the body. Gender, age and ethnicity greatly influence where we put on fat. Several health risks are associated with high amounts of total body fat, visceral fat and abdominal subcutaneous fat including insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome and hypertension (high blood pressure). Visceral fat is much more associated with these undesirable metabolic diseases and can be deceiving. Some individuals could have excess visceral fat, while not having much subcutaneous fat and therefore appear lean even though they can be at great risk. The link between visceral fat and accelerated atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries) is actually independent of age, overall level of obesity or the amount of subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is also the leading factor in the development of insulin resistance, and many studies are now showing links between excessive visceral fat and an amplified inflammatory state. This inflammatory state may be why those with more visceral fat are at a much higher risk of type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. While visceral fat seems to directly lead to more insulin resistance, the risk from subcutaneous fat seems to come more indirectly from an interaction of many factors including large amounts of excess weight (morbid obesity), ageing, hormonal status, quality and quantity of nutrition, low physical activity and other environmental factors. These factors play together in ways that can lead to the development of metabolic disorders.

What are the take aways? Both visceral fat and excess abdominal subcutaneous fat are associated with unfavorable cardiometabolic risk factors, but visceral fat remains more strongly associated with these risk factors and can be present in excess without subcutaneous obesity. Interestingly, however, if subcutaneous fat is around the belly area specifically, it seems to express more of the proinflammatory genes (like visceral fat) than when it is in other areas. In other words, any form of belly fat is bad for health.

What can be done to treat excess belly fat?

Subcutaneous fat is soft, and there are options for treating this type of fat. From lifestyle changes to surgery. However, for visceral fat, the only option to get rid of it is lifestyle modification, good eating habits and physical activity.

If you want help improving your metabolic health, including getting rid of belly fat, I can help! As a Nurse Practitioner, helping others improve their metabolic health has been the focus of my work and the reason I started Forever Fit Life. Shoot me a message, I would love to be a part of your journey to living Forever Fit!


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