Q. My doctor says I may have too much visceral fat. Why is this a problem and what can I do about it?
A. Visceral fat (sometimes called abdominal fat) is fat that accumulates in our abdomen, padding the spaces between our abdominal organs. Unlike the fat just beneath the skin—the kind we can grab with our hands, called subcutaneous fat—visceral fat seems to be more harmful to our health. It is linked to insulin resistance, which may lead to type 2 diabetes, and to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. In women, it is also associated with a higher risk of breast cancer and the need for gallbladder surgery.
The amount of visceral fat each of us carries is to some degree influenced by our genes, as well as the drop in estrogen that occurs at menopause. While most of us have both subcutaneous fat around our waist and some visceral fat beneath, a waistline measurement provides a good estimate of visceral fat. A waist circumference greater than 35 inches is a sign of increased risk for conditions associated with visceral fat.
Fortunately, visceral fat is very sensitive to weight loss. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise on most days plus resistance exercise a few days a week has been shown to reduce visceral fat. (Sit-ups tighten abdominal muscles, but they will not decrease visceral fat.) Diet is also important. Stick to small portions, watch your fats, and emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
— Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Women’s Health Watch