Visceral Vs. Subcutaneous Fat – Overview
Despite how fit you are, it is healthy and normal to have some fat in your body. The human body relies on fat cell deposits, also known as adipocytes, for energy, organ protection, and cell growth, among other things. Having a healthy amount of the appropriate kind of fat in the proper places can do wonders for your health. However, if your body lacks the proper balance of them, you may be in danger of a variety of serious health problems.
Our bodies have two forms of fat storage that can be found in different areas: visceral and subcutaneous. This article compares these two forms of body fat, their functions, symptoms, detection methods, and treatments.
Visceral Vs. Subcutaneous Fat
Approximately 10 % of total body fat is considered visceral fat. Visceral fat, which is also termed “deep fat,” “hidden fat,” and “belly fat,” develops when there are too many adipocytes in the peritoneal cavity in the abdomen hence creating abdominal obesity. It is found wrapped around organs and surrounding spaces, including the liver, pancreas, kidneys, heart, and intestines. Visceral fat makes up the least of the body’s total weight.
Visceral fat can exist alongside a flat belly. That’s something called “thin outside, fat inside.” Since it is deep in the abdomen, it isn’t as easy to pinch. Visceral fat, in certain quantities, can be beneficial since it helps protect your internal organs.
On the other hand, about 85 % of total body fat is subcutaneous fat. (1) Subcutaneous fat, commonly referred to as “soft fat,” develops when there are too many adipocytes outside of the peritoneal cavity and beneath the skin, particularly in the arms, stomach, thighs, and buttocks. It serves as the third layer of skin, after the epidermis and the dermis, which accounts for its pinchability. Among its many benefits, subcutaneous fat helps regulate core body temperature, gives underlying structures protection such as ligaments, nerves, muscles, bones and blood vessels, and bones from injury, and also serves as a medium for the storage of energy. On the other hand, having an excessive amount of both fats can be harmful to your health. (2)
The Buildup of Fat
Subcutaneous fat is present in all humans; however, the amount varies greatly depending on factors such as age, diet, gender, and genetics. Males often have more visceral fat than subcutaneous fat compared to females. (3) Aging in women may change where the body stores fat after menopause, and fat and muscle mass increase. Women who don’t put on weight are more likely to develop visceral fat as they age. Individuals are more likely to accumulate visceral and subcutaneous fat when:
- They lead a sedentary existence.
- They barely exercise.
- They lack significant muscle mass.
- They consume more calories than they use up.
- They either have diabetes or are insulin resistant.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, and insulin hormone have both been proven to contribute to the development of visceral fat (4), whereas growth hormone and sex hormones may play a role in preventing this type of fat storage. (5)
Challenges in Monitoring Fat
Accurately monitoring body fat can be challenging due to the various methods available and the inherent variability in these measurements. However, monitoring visceral fat can be more difficult, as it is not directly visible and requires specialized imaging techniques to measure. In contrast, subcutaneous fat can be more easily measured using methods such as skinfold thickness measurements and bioelectrical impedance. It is essential to consult a health professional to figure out the best approach for monitoring your body fat.
The body shape or distribution of fat can provide some clues about the type and amount of fat a person has. In general, people who carry more fat around their waist (apple shape) may have a higher amount of visceral fat, while those who carry more fat around their lower body, including thighs and hips (pear shape), may have a higher amount of subcutaneous fat. (6)
Using your height and weight, the BMI calculates your body fat percentage. A BMI of 25 or higher (in men and women) suggests you may be overweight and may be an indication of visceral fat, according to WHO. (7) However, calculating someone’s BMI merely approximates their real body fat percentage.
Measuring waist circumference can be a quick and easy way to assess the amount of abdominal fat a person has. To measure waist circumference, the smallest possible waist measurement should be taken just above the belly button. Keep the tape measure level and exhale gently before taking the measurement. It is recommended to take a mean of three measurements.
In general, A waist measurement of above 35 inches (88 cm) in females and above 40 inches (102cm) in males is considered excessive and may suggest an increased risk for certain health issues. (8) However, it is important to remember that these thresholds may vary depending on factors such as age, ethnicity, and overall body weight.
It shows how fat is distributed in the body by comparing the size of the waist to the size of the hips. WHR is a good way to figure out how much abdominal fat you have. Take your waist and hip measurements. Divide your waist circumference by your hip measurement to figure out your waist-to-hip ratio. WHO says that the waist-to-hip ratio is high if it is 0.8 or higher for women and 0.9 or higher for men. (9)
The waist-height ratio is a measure of body fat that is based on the size of an individual’s waist compared to their height. It is used to assess the amount of abdominal fat, including both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat, that an individual has. To determine the waist-to-height ratio, an individual’s waist measurement is divided by their height. In general, for both genders, 0.59 is the cutoff value for abdominal obesity. (10)
Bioelectrical impedance analysis.
This technique utilizes a minute electrical current to evaluate the tissue’s resistance to the electric current. It can be used to estimate body fat, including subcutaneous and visceral fat. Age and sex are two variables that affect a healthy fat percentage. For instance, a healthy range for a woman in the 20–39 age range is 21%–32%, whereas it is 8%–19% for men in the same age range. (11)
A skinfold caliper is a tool used to measure the thickness of a fold of skin and fat, often to estimate body fat percentage. It consists of a pair of arms with a clamp at one end and a scale on the caliper. (12) Skinfold calipers are commonly used to measure subcutaneous fat, but they cannot measure visceral fat, and their accuracy can be affected by factors such as the skill of the person using the caliper.
Imaging Test Methods:
Imaging techniques such as MRI and CT can accurately measure the amount of visceral and subcutaneous fat in the body. These techniques provide detailed images of the body’s internal structures and can accurately measure fat volume in specific areas. They may be more accurate than methods such as skinfold thickness measurements and bioelectrical impedance, but they are also more expensive and may not be widely available. Also, talking to a medical professional about the best way to measure body fat is important.
Fats with Higher Risk
It is said, “Excess of everything is bad,” in the same way, excessive fat around the internal organs and under the skin can lead to negative consequences. However, visceral fat, sometimes referred to as “active fat,” is more likely to increase your risk for severe health issues than subcutaneous fat. This is because visceral fat cells are potentially active and make more of certain inflammatory proteins, such as interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Over time, these markers can promote long-lasting inflammation in your body’s tissues and organs and narrow your blood vessels, increasing the risk of chronic disease. Having visceral fat in the belly is a sign of metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by insulin resistance and is a key risk factor for numerous chronic disorders.
Diabetes: Excess abdominal fat, including visceral fat, has been identified as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, according to several studies. This is because excess of it releases a protein known as retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4), which could cause insulin resistance and lead to glucose intolerance. (13) Moreover, it can also cause other health-related issues affecting the eyes, heart, foot, kidneys, brain, and nerves.
Excess body fat has been shown to increase the production of angiotensinogen, which can lead to an increase in angiotensin II and, subsequently, an increase in blood pressure. (14)
Additionally, excess fat tissue increases the production of hormones such as insulin and leptin, which can also lead to an increase in blood pressure. Fat tissue also produces substances called adipokines, which can cause inflammation and constriction of blood vessels, both of which can contribute to hypertension. (15)
Heart disease: Cytokines produced by visceral fat may cause inflammation in the body by activating immune cells, such as white blood cells, which can then release additional cytokines and other inflammatory molecules. This can lead to a sustained inflammatory response, which can contribute to the development of heart disease (16)
In addition to its production of cytokines, visceral fat can also contribute to heart disease through other mechanisms, such as increased blood pressure, altering blood lipid levels, and impairing insulin sensitivity.
Stroke: Visceral fat can increase the risk of both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke by increasing the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal blood clotting, and inflammation. These conditions can damage the blood vessels and increase the risk of stroke by causing blockages or reducing blood flow to the brain. (17)
Cancer: Increased risk of some cancers is associated with excess body fat, especially visceral fat, which has been related to colon, breast, pancreatic, and kidney cancers, among other cancers. (18)
Kidney disease: Excess body fat contributes to increasing the load that the kidneys receive in everyday functioning. This produces an increase in the rate of filtering and waste removal. (19) Eventually, this extra load may increase the risk of kidney diseases.
Fatty liver diseases: Excess visceral fat can have negative effects on the liver. This sort of fat is connected with an increased risk of liver damage and disease, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (20) Too much liver fat can induce inflammation and scarring, called fibrosis. This can lead to more serious illnesses, such as cirrhosis and liver failure, if left untreated.
Gallbladder diseases: Visceral adiposity is associated with insulin resistance, which can lead to high blood sugar levels and an increased risk of developing gallstones. Gallstones can block the flow of bile from the gallbladder, leading to inflammation of the gallbladder (cholecystitis). (21)
Sleep apnea: Excess visceral fat has been linked to sleep apnea in several scientific studies. Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. It can cause snoring, gasping for air, and frequent awakenings.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is the most common type of sleep apnea, is caused by a blockage in the airway. It can be caused by excess fat deposits in the neck and throat, which can cause the airway to become narrowed or blocked, making it more difficult to breathe. (22)
Infertility: Research conducted in 2020 showed that the increase in visceral adiposity might adversely affect male fertility due to its metabolic and hormonal effects. (23) Excess fat, particularly abdominal fat, has been linked to fertility problems, ovulatory dysfunction, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and negative pregnancy outcomes in women. (24)
Lower Back Pain: Excess fat, particularly abdominal fat, can cause lower back pain by placing additional strain on the lower back muscles, altering a person’s center of gravity, and increasing the risk of developing conditions such as degenerative disc disease and osteoarthritis. (25)
Dementia: Dementia is a decline in cognitive function that can impact an individual’s memory, thinking, and decision-making abilities, disrupting their ability to carry out everyday activities. Some studies have suggested that excess weight may be linked to an increased risk of developing dementia. In particular, findings from the research showed people who are obese and have a large waist circumference might have an increased risk of developing dementia compared to people whose weight and body size are normal. (26)
Subcutaneous fat is harder to get rid of than other kinds of fat because it doesn’t respond as well to traditional ways of losing weight, including diet and exercise. This happens because subcutaneous fat serves important functions in the body, such as insulation and cushioning. As a result, the body is more resistant to losing this type of fat, and it may take longer to see significant reductions in subcutaneous fat through diet and exercise alone. However, it is still feasible to reduce subcutaneous fat by making a variety of lifestyle adjustments, such as eating a balanced diet and getting moderate exercise. (27) There are a few ways to measure subcutaneous fat and visceral fat, but most of them require specialized equipment and trained professionals. Here are some common methods:
Diet and exercise:
To help treat visceral and subcutaneous fat, it is important to follow a healthy diet that is low in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and calories. This may include eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and limiting processed and high-fat foods. Regular physical activity, such as strength training and cardiovascular exercise, can also help to burn excess fat and improve the overall health.
This is a surgical procedure that removes fat from the body using suction. It can be effective at reducing subcutaneous fat, but it is not typically used to remove visceral fat. (28)
In this non-surgical method, fat cells are frozen and eliminated using freezing temperatures. It is specifically designed to target subcutaneous fat, and it may be effective at reducing fat in certain areas of the body.
This is a non-surgical procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to heat and destroy fat cells. It can be effective at reducing subcutaneous fat, but it is not typically used to remove visceral fat.
Weight loss surgery:
Also known as bariatric surgery, it involves altering the digestive system to help individuals with high levels of visceral fat and subcutaneous fat to lose weight. This extensive procedure carries the possibility of complications during and following the surgery. This can be done through procedures such as gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, or gastric banding. Those with a BMI of 40 or higher and serious health conditions that couldn’t be addressed by traditional weight loss practices are often advised to do so. (29)
Subcutaneous fat refers to the fat deposits directly under the skin. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is the type of fat that builds around the internal organs of the abdomen. Visceral fat is considered more dangerous, as it raises the risk of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer. Physical activity and a balanced diet can help you keep the weight off and lower your risk for certain diseases.
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