Is belly fat worse than other fat? Any type of excess body fat is bad for your health, but it appears that location may matter just a much when it comes to body fat as it does when buying real estate and visceral fat is prime real estate in how it affects the body.
The fat that is located deep within the abdomen is more dangerous to your health than the regular body fat you can pinch with your fingers.
Typically, about 90 percent of our body fat lies just beneath the skin and is spread out over the entire body. This type of fat is called subcutaneous fat even if it’s located in the stomach area.
The other 10 percent is called visceral or intra-abdominal fat and it is located beneath the abdominal wall; it surrounds the liver, pancreas, stomach and intestines. We also have an apron-like flap of tissue just under the belly muscles called the omentum that gets harder and thicker as it fills with fat.
Why Visceral Fat Is Dangerous
In 1984, a Swedish study showed that an increase in abdominal waistline was a strong predictor for coronary heart disease later in life. In another study, the same investigators showed that central obesity was also strongly associated with an increased risk for diabetes. As we know, people with diabetes have a higher risk for a number of serious chronic illnesses.
Although visceral fat makes up the smaller proportion of body fat, it is associated with more health problems than subcutaneous fat. Not all fat cells are the same. The visceral fat deep in the belly is a metabolically active hormonal organ that secretes various adipokines that are inflammatory signaling agents.
Fat acts like an endocrine organ and produces hormones and cytokines that can have a significant effect on your health. When you have excess abdominal fat it disrupts the normal balance and function of these hormones.
For example, visceral fat pumps out cytokines like tumor necrosis factor and interleukin-6 that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These biochemicals have a wide range of negative effects in many areas including our blood pressure, blood clotting and sensitivity to insulin. They can directly lead to a variety of diseases.
Researchers at Harvard have discovered that visceral fat secretes more retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4), a molecule that increases insulin resistance. The more visceral fat you have, the higher the levels of RBP4.
Subcutaneous Fat Is Not As Dangerous
While too much body fat of any kind is a health risk, subcutaneous fat produces a higher proportion of beneficial molecules than visceral fat does. It also produces fewer proteins called cytokines that trigger low-level inflammation.
Subcutaneous fat produces more of the hormone leptin which acts on the brain to suppress appetite and to burn existing body fat.
Adiponectin is another hormone produced by subcutaneous fat. It regulates the processing of fats and sugars and helps protect against diabetes.
What Causes Visceral Fat
How much fat we store is largely determined by how many calories we consume. Taking in more than we burn creates a surplus and some of that surplus gets stored as fat. Lack of exercise also leads to more fat storage because we burn more calories when we are more active.
Aging also plays a role. People typically lose muscle mass with age and simultaneously tend to store more fat. This loss of muscle mass means you burn fewer calories and this is why it’s harder to lose weight as you get older.
Many women experience an increase in belly fat as they get older due to a decreasing level of estrogen. Estrogen levels appear to influence where fat gets distributed in the body.
Lastly, diet and genetics also influence the amount of visceral fat in people.
Health Risks Associated With Visceral Fat
There are a number of health risks that are associated with visceral fat including:
- More than double the risk of developing heart disease.
- Three times more likely to develop dementia.
- 37 percent more likely to develop asthma.
- Three times the risk of developing colorectal precancerous polyps.
- Increased risk for breast cancer.