A little extra belly fat may just seem like a little more to love, but that’s not true unless diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers make everyone better at spooning. Belly fat, otherwise known as visceral fat, is located below visible fat, on top of and inside vital organs. It is a legitimate medical problem, largely influenced by genetics. But it can be controlled, through long-term diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes.
“Visceral fat is fat found inside the abdomen — around and in the organs, like the liver, kidneys and so on,” Dr. Susan Besser of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore told Fatherly. Visceral fat isn’t visible like subcutaneous fat, the kind of fat that can be seen. “However, a person with a larger belly probably also has visceral fat, and it is a risk factor for multiple health problems.”
Visceral fat has been linked with diabetes, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, and fatty liver disease, and the likelihood of developing it increases with both weight gain and age, research shows. While lifestyle factors like poor diet and lack of exercise are factors, genetics and hormones play a larger role in how belly fat snowballs. Metabolisms slow as people age and they generally become less active. Testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and other thyroid hormones decline naturally, doubling down on the potential for visceral fat.
Beyond that, belly fat provokes a release of cytokines, small proteins which affect insulin and cholesterol production, which cause inflammation throughout the body, registered nurse Rebecca Lee warns. “Inflammation can lead to numerous diseases,” Lee told Fatherly. “Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”
But the real bitch of belly fat that it’s just as hard to recognize as it is to get rid of. Visceral fat cannot be identified by simply looking at a person’s body, but through CT scans, so doctors generally assume if a person has too much body fat in general that visceral fat is present. Still, it’s important to consult with a medical professional to rule out any chronic illnesses, both experts agree.
Although lifestyle factors are not the only cause of belly fat, making changes in daily health habits is what Besser recommends first. Some of these alterations may include increasing exercise, consuming more water and protein, and getting better sleep. Medication adjustments may be in order as well — steroids like prednisone, certain blood pressure medications, antidepressants, insulin, and birth control can all make visceral fat worse. Lee adds that avoiding artificial sweeteners, MSG, chemical emulsifiers in food, and low-fat foods, while eating natural food rich in probiotics such as Kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha can all help to keep belly fat at a manageable level. If none of that works, medications or bariatric surgery may be suggested by a doctor in extreme cases.
That may seem like a lot of little things to juggle over fat that can’t be seen but, given the health risks, it’s an important problem to address. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s what your youth was for. “Belly fat is the hardest to get rid of. However, one must realize that obesity is a chronic illness as many other illnesses are like diabetes and high blood pressure, so the treatment is chronic and there will be cyclic gains and losses,” Besser says.
“It is important to control it to remain in good health.”