Having some fat in your belly is normal. After all, fat serves to protect and insulate your body.
However, having too much belly fat may harm your health and increase your risk of developing certain chronic diseases. As such, keeping your total body fat, including your belly fat, at a healthy level can be helpful.
This article outlines the types of belly fat and shares evidence-based tips on how to lose excess belly fat.
What are the different types of belly fat?
Compared with the rest of your body, only a small amount of fat is located in your belly.
There are two main types of belly fat — one is found under your skin and the other is found deeper inside your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs.
Subcutaneous belly fat
Subcutaneous fat, or subcutaneous adipose tissue (SAT), is the fat that’s found under your skin.
Subcutaneous fat is soft, and it’s the fat you see “jiggling” on your belly. In general, women have greater amounts of subcutaneous fat than men.
Unlike the fat that’s found deeper in the abdominal cavity, subcutaneous fat isn’t as strongly linked to increased disease risk.
However, having too much body fat, in general, including total belly fat, may increase your risk of developing some chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Contrarily, maintaining healthy levels of belly fat and overall body fat may help reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease.
Visceral belly fat
Visceral adipose tissue (VAT), or visceral belly fat, is the fat that surrounds internal organs like your kidneys, liver, and pancreas, so it’s much deeper in your abdomen than subcutaneous fat. This is commonly referred to as “harmful” belly fat.
Compared with subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is much more metabolically active. This type of fat contains more cells, blood vessels, and nerves than subcutaneous fat.
Visceral fat is strongly linked to increased resistance to the hormone insulin, which regulates your blood sugar levels. Over time, insulin resistance may lead to elevated blood sugar levels and the development of type 2 diabetes.
Visceral fat also contributes to systemic inflammation, which may raise your disease risk.
Men are more likely to accumulate visceral fat than women, which is why men are more likely to develop an “apple-shaped” figure as belly fat grows. On the other hand, women are more likely to develop excess fat in the lower body, leading to a “pear” shape.
Interestingly, body fat distribution changes with age. For example, while premenopausal women have higher levels of subcutaneous belly fat, postmenopausal women tend to have higher levels of visceral fat, which contributes to an increased risk of metabolic disease.
Also, visceral fat tends to be higher in people of European origin compared with people of other ethnicities.
Summary: Subcutaneous fat is the soft belly fat that you can poke. It’s found under your skin. Meanwhile, visceral belly fat surrounds the organs in your abdominal cavity and is strongly linked to increased disease risk.
Why excess belly fat may harm health
While having some belly fat is normal and necessary for good health, having too much belly fat may harm your health and increase your disease risk.
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Visceral fat is the type of belly fat that’s significantly linked to health concerns.
Even though only 10–20% of total body fat is composed of visceral fat, this type of fat is strongly linked to increased disease risk.
This is because visceral fat is “active” fat, meaning it produces hormones and other substances, including inflammatory proteins, which harm your health by increasing insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, blood fat levels, and blood pressure.
Visceral fat and your liver
Visceral fat is located near your portal vein, which carries blood from your gastrointestinal tract to your liver for processing. Visceral fat transfers fatty acids, inflammatory proteins, and other dangerous substances to your liver.
As such, visceral fat is associated with liver inflammation and higher amounts of liver fat, which increases your risk of developing conditions like insulin resistance and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Total belly fat and disease risk
While subcutaneous belly fat isn’t as strongly linked to disease risk as visceral fat, having high amounts of total belly and body fat is, so it’s essential to focus on reducing overall belly fat, not just the visceral type.
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Studies show that excess body fat accumulation is a major factor in the development of insulin resistance, blood vessel dysfunction, fatty liver, atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome.
Research also suggests that people who have more visceral fat are at a greater risk of several health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic disease, fatty liver, and elevated heart disease risk factors like high blood fat and blood pressure levels.
Additionally, a study in over 36,000 people found that those with a higher amount of visceral fat than subcutaneous fat were more likely to die from any cause than those who had lower amounts of visceral fat.
Having a larger waist circumference is also strongly linked to increased disease risk. Waist circumference is a way to assess total abdominal fat, so both subcutaneous and visceral fat are contributing factors to this measurement.
Studies consistently show that maintaining a healthy waist circumference and reducing waist circumference through diet and exercise leads to significant improvements in many aspects of health, especially heart health and diabetes risk.
Summary: Visceral fat is strongly linked to increased disease risk. Even though subcutaneous fat isn’t considered as harmful as visceral fat, it’s important to focuses on reducing your total belly fat for optimal health.
Evidence-based, effective ways to lose belly fat
Now that you’re aware of the different types of belly fats and their health effects, you may wonder how you can lose excess belly fat safely and sustainably.
Keep in mind that, although diet and lifestyle play a significant role in belly fat accumulation, factors like your age, sex, and genetics also have an effect.
Fortunately, there are several ways to lose excess belly fat, and in turn, reduce your risk of many health conditions.
Here are some evidence-based tips to lose belly fat:
- Cut out sugary beverages. Drinking too many sugary drinks like soda has been linked to increased visceral fat accumulation and a larger waist circumference. Try swapping sugary drinks with water or sparkling water.
- Get moving. Increasing physical activity may significantly reduce belly fat. Try mixing up your workouts, including high and low-intensity aerobic activity, as well as resistance training, all of which have been shown to help reduce belly fat.
- Increase your fiber intake. People who follow high fiber diets tend to have less belly fat than those who don’t. Plus, transitioning to a high fiber diet may help you lose excess belly fat.
- Cut back on ultra-processed foods. Studies show that frequently eating ultra-processed foods like snack foods, sweets, fast food, and refined grain products are linked to a greater waist circumference.
- Limit alcohol use. Drinking too much alcohol may harm your overall health in several ways, including contributing to excessive accumulation of belly fat.
- Don’t skimp on sleep. Poor sleep quality is associated with visceral fat accumulation. Plus, one review including over 56,000 people tied shorter sleep duration to a greater waist circumference.
- Increase protein intake. Dietary patterns that are higher in protein may help promote belly fat loss. A review including 23,876 people linked higher protein diets to a smaller waist circumference.
- Fill up on whole foods. Cutting back on ultra-processed foods and eating mostly whole, minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and healthy sources of protein and fat may promote overall health and healthy belly fat levels.
In addition to the tips listed above, recent research suggests that some people with too much belly fat may benefit from reducing their carb intake.
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A 15-week study among 50 middle-aged adults with overweight or obesity found that those who were assigned a very low carb, high fat, energy-restricted diet that provided 5% of calories from carbs lost more belly fat, including visceral fat, than those who followed a low-fat diet.
Interestingly, both diets resulted in similar amounts of weight and total body fat loss, but the low carb, high-fat diet was more effective at reducing belly fat, specifically.
Other studies have also found that restricting carbs may help reduce visceral fat among people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as women with the polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
However, diet is highly individualized, and some people may obtain better results with a higher carb intake, particularly if those carbs are consumed as part of a fiber-rich, plant-forward diet that includes whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit.
Working with a knowledgeable healthcare professional like a registered dietitian can help you choose an appropriate dietary pattern that promotes belly fat loss and overall health and meets your specific needs and preferences.
Summary: Belly fat reduction strategies include exercising more, eating more fiber-rich foods, cutting out sugary beverages and ultra-processed foods, and getting enough sleep. Also, consider working with a registered dietitian for personalized nutrition advice.
Having excess amounts of belly fat, especially the visceral type, is associated with negative health outcomes, including an increased risk of developing conditions like metabolic disease and fatty liver.
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Fortunately, there are many healthy ways to reduce excess belly fat, including increasing your intake of nutrient-dense foods, getting enough sleep, and moving your body more.
Remember that creating healthy, sustainable habits is much more important for your overall well-being than aiming for quick weight loss.
If you need more personalized dietary advice on how to lose excess belly fat and reduce your disease risk, contact a knowledgeable registered dietitian.