We often think of belly fat as the fat we see on our abdomen, the extra weight we carry that makes zipping up our trousers just that little bit harder. However, while the fat around our midsection can be stored under the skin as subcutaneous fat, we also have visceral abdominal fat deep inside our abdomen, surrounding our internal organs.
This visceral fat can be dangerous and is associated with severe health complications, including insulin resistance, inflammation, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Our genetics, age, gender and lifestyle factors all influence where we store and lose body fat. Although we cannot ‘spot-reduce’ body fat, the important thing is that visceral fat is the first to break down when we lose weight.
This article will explore some of the factors to consider when aiming to reduce visceral fat while offering some advice on how you can improve your metabolic and overall health.
Healthcare providers will typically assess whether a person’s weight is a potential health risk by measuring their body mass index or BMI. However, BMI does not accurately measure your body’s fat or consider your muscle mass. Instead, Waist-to-hip-ratio (WHR) can provide a better insight into someone’s susceptibility to the risks associated with being overweight.
What can I do about visceral fat?
Below are some of the ways you can lose visceral fat.
Although all weight loss contributes to lowering overall body fat mass, evidence shows that a reduced carbohydrate diet,[2,3] and a low carb diet,[4,5] are particularly effective in visceral fat loss. On the other hand, additional sugar (especially sugar-sweetened beverages), have demonstrated an increase in visceral adipose tissue.[6,7]
Reducing your total carbohydrate intake and basing your diet on whole, natural food sources is an excellent option for those concerned about visceral fat.
Fibre and protein
Increasing the fibre and protein in your diet is also recommended for weight loss, partly because they can help you feel satiated. Evidence also suggests fibre and protein can help reduce visceral fat.
In one study, an increased intake of soluble fibre (e.g avocado, black beans, oats and flax seeds) led to a 3.7% decrease in visceral fat over 5 years.
Another piece of research also found that supplementing protein in your diet alongside intermittent fasting induced a loss in visceral fat mass.
An improvement in insulin resistance has also been linked to a high protein diet.
A good target for fibre and protein intake is to aim for 30 grams of fibre per day and a further 0.8-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
The adverse effects of alcohol on the body are widely documented. Alcohol consumption has also been shown to increase belly fat, with research demonstrating that drinking shows the greatest trend toward an increase in visceral fat.
With the risks associated with drinking regularly, try being more mindful of your alcohol intake and how it aligns with your goals.
Although we often credit sweat-inducing exercise with weight loss, the reality is that diet, and moderate exercise can help lose visceral fat. Regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise for 30-60 minutes each day has led to substantial reductions in visceral fat, (from 15-20% across a review of five studies).
Although the effectiveness of high-intensity exercise on reducing body fat has been reported numerous times, lower-intensity exercise has a more significant effect on changes in abdominal and visceral fat mass.
If you’re new to exercise, it’s worth taking things steady to begin with, gradually increasing the amount you move. Brisk walking and jogging are just two examples of moderate-to-vigorous exercises you can try. What is important is finding a sustainable physical activity that is right for you.
Prolonged periods without enough sleep can also lead to an increase in visceral adiposity. Lack of sleep can lead to a rise in dangerous fat deposits and cause leptin resistance – a hormone which inhibits hunger.
Sleep can be affected by several factors, including your consumption of alcohol, caffeine, exercise and even the sleeping environment itself. With the quality of your sleep so susceptible to being disrupted, being aware of and practising sleep hygiene can help improve your overall wellbeing.
While belly fat is linked to severe health risks, lifestyle changes can radically improve your health outcomes and reduce fat on your abdomen.
- Li, X. and Qi, L., 2019. Gene–environment interactions on body fat distribution. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(15), p.3690.
- Gower, B.A. and Goss, A.M., 2015. A lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet reduces abdominal and intermuscular fat and increases insulin sensitivity in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes. The Journal of nutrition, 145(1), pp.177S-183S.
- Govers, E., Otten, A., Schuiling, B., Bouwman, W., Lourens, A. and Visscher, T.L.S., 2019. Effectiveness of a Very Low Carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet Compared to a Low Carbohydrate and Energy-Restricted Diet in Overweight/Obese Type 2 Diabetes Patients. Int J Endocrinol Metab Disord, 5(2).
- Goss, A.M., Gower, B., Soleymani, T., Stewart, M., Pendergrass, M., Lockhart, M., Krantz, O., Dowla, S., Bush, N., Garr Barry, V. and Fontaine, K.R., 2020. Effects of weight loss during a very low carbohydrate diet on specific adipose tissue depots and insulin sensitivity in older adults with obesity: a randomized clinical trial. Nutrition & Metabolism, 17(1), pp.1-12.
- Hyde, P.N., Sapper, T.N., Crabtree, C.D., LaFountain, R.A., Bowling, M.L., Buga, A., Fell, B., McSwiney, F.T., Dickerson, R.M., Miller, V.J. and Scandling, D., 2019. Dietary carbohydrate restriction improves metabolic syndrome independent of weight loss. JCI insight, 4(12).
- Gallagher, C., Moschonis, G., Lambert, K.A., Karaglani, E., Mavrogianni, C., Gavrili, S., Manios, Y. and Erbas, B., 2021. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with visceral fat in children. British Journal of Nutrition, 125(7), pp.819-827.
- Ma, J., Sloan, M., Fox, C.S., Hoffmann, U., Smith, C.E., Saltzman, E., Rogers, G.T., Jacques, P.F. and McKeown, N.M., 2014. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with abdominal fat partitioning in healthy adults. The Journal of nutrition, 144(8), pp.1283-1290.
- Hairston, K.G., Vitolins, M.Z., Norris, J.M., Anderson, A.M., Hanley, A.J. and Wagenknecht, L.E., 2012. Lifestyle factors and 5‐year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS family study. Obesity, 20(2), pp.421-427.
- Bel Lassen, P., Belda, E., Prifti, E., Dao, M.C., Specque, F., Henegar, C., Rinaldi, L., Wang, X., Kennedy, S.P., Zucker, J.D. and Calame, W., 2021. Protein supplementation during an energy-restricted diet induces visceral fat loss and gut microbiota amino acid metabolism activation: A randomized trial. Scientific reports, 11(1), pp.1-13.
- Tricò, D., Moriconi, D., Berta, R., Baldi, S., Quinones-Galvan, A., Guiducci, L., Taddei, S., Mari, A. and Nannipieri, M., 2021. Effects of low-carbohydrate versus mediterranean diets on weight loss, glucose metabolism, insulin kinetics and β-cell function in morbidly obese individuals. Nutrients, 13(4), p.1345.
- Kim, M.K., Reaven, G.M. and Kim, S.H., 2017. Dissecting the relationship between obesity and hyperinsulinemia: role of insulin secretion and insulin clearance. Obesity, 25(2), pp.378-383.
- Cigolini, M., Targher, G., IA, B.A., Tonoli, M., Filippi, F., Muggeo, M. and De Sandre, G., 1996. Moderate alcohol consumption and its relation to visceral fat and plasma androgens in healthy women. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders: journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 20(3), pp.206-212.
- Dorn, J.M., Hovey, K., Muti, P., Freudenheim, J.L., Russell, M., Nochajski, T.H. and Trevisan, M., 2003. Alcohol drinking patterns differentially affect central adiposity as measured by abdominal height in women and men. The Journal of nutrition, 133(8), pp.2655-2662.
- Ross, R., Soni, S. and Houle, S., 2020. Negative energy balance induced by exercise or diet: Effects on visceral adipose tissue and liver fat. Nutrients, 12(4), p.891.
- Maillard, F., Pereira, B. and Boisseau, N., 2018. Effect of high-intensity interval training on total, abdominal and visceral fat mass: a meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 48(2), pp.269-288.
- Chaput, J.P., Bouchard, C. and Tremblay, A., 2014. Change in sleep duration and visceral fat accumulation over 6 years in adults. Obesity, 22(5), pp.E9-E12.
- Sweatt, S.K., Gower, B.A., Chieh, A.Y., Liu, Y. and Li, L., 2018. Sleep quality is differentially related to adiposity in adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 98, pp.46-51.