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Visceral vs. Subcutaneous Fat: Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life

Not all fat is created equal. In the human body, fat is classified in two ways—subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is located beneath the skin in places like the thighs, hips, and buttocks. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is better known as belly fat and is located deep within the abdomen around the organs such as the liver, digestive tract and your lungs and heart.

Breaking it down

Have you ever wondered about the fat accumulated in your lower body which we sometimes refer to as belly fat? Or muffin top? You know, the kind of fat that makes a woman appear pear-shaped? Well, that is subcutaneous fat, whereas the fat in the abdominal area of a person who is apple-shaped is mainly comprised of visceral fat.

Abdominal fat is also known as visceral fat or organ fat (intra-abdominal fat), and it is located in a person’s abdominal cavity. Packed in and around the organs, visceral fat is composed of several adipose depots such as mesenteric, perirenal, white adipose tissue and mesenteric depots. And when there is excess visceral fat with a protruding belly, it is known as “belly fat,” Fat in the lower body like the thighs and buttocks, is subcutaneous fat.

Subcutaneous fat is right beneath the outer layer of your skin and is the kind of fat on your body that you can pinch between your fingers. Although it looks awful, it is not as dangerous as visceral fat. A study by The New England Journal of Medicine showed that by removing subcutaneous fat in obese women through liposuction, there was no effect on their blood pressure, cholesterol levels or blood sugar levels, even after three months.

On the other hand, visceral fat creates inflammatory substances called cytokines, which are terrible for your organs. Visceral fat is metabolically active and is constantly releasing substances that travel to the liver and influence blood fat production. This kind of fat makes the body more vulnerable to diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and cancer. How? Because research shows that cancer cells can feed on visceral fat causing breast, gastric, and colon cancer, which researchers believe could be fueled by visceral fat.

Visceral fat in women

Where a woman’s fat deposits itself is influenced by several different factors including heredity, hormones, diet, and exercise. You can measure visceral fat via an MRI or CT scan which is costly. However, these have shown that waist circumference is an indicator when someone has too much abdominal belly fat.

First let’s take a long, hard look at the shape of your body. Do you have an apple shape with most of the excess weight above your waist? If so, then this is more likely to be abdominal fat, and therefore more visceral fat.  But if you have a pear-shape or larger lower body fat below the waist, then you may not be as at risk. In any case, many people today are looking for ways to lose belly fat to look better.

Studies have shown how women who maintain a waist circumference of 35 inches or more and men measuring 40 inches or higher probably have dangerous levels of visceral fat, and that needs to be dealt with.

When a woman reaches menopause, the estrogen production cycle begins to decrease, and the ratio of androgen or male hormones present in small amounts in women, compared to estrogen, increases. After being linked to several studies, this shift appears to increase abdominal fat after menopause. Researchers believe that the drop in estrogen levels at menopause is also linked to increased levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, promoting the accumulation of abdominal fat.

Now researchers are trying to measure cortisol and match it up with health risks and monitor changes that occur with age such as overall weight gain or loss. The most accurate measurement techniques include magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography. These tests can be expensive, but, research using these imaging methods have also shown that a person’s waist circumference reflects abdominal fat. Supposedly, the waist size is a better predictor of health problems than body mass index (BMI), which indicates only total body fat.

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