Visceral fat: What it is and how to reduce it

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Most of us know it’s not healthy to be carrying excess body fat. But certain types of fat can be even more harmful than we may realise, especially if we develop too much of it. 

Visceral fat, which is stored around your organs, can contribute to a range of dangerous health conditions, such as heart disease, dementia and cancer.

Here we explain everything you need to know about visceral fat, how it develops, and how you can reduce it.

What is visceral fat?

Visceral fat is essentially a build-up of intra-abdominal adipose tissue… Or, in simpler terms, it’s fat that’s stored deeper than normal belly fat. It wraps around your major organs, including the liver, pancreas and kidneys. Nasty stuff.

How to diagnose visceral fat

A CT or MRI scan is the only way to accurately and definitively diagnose visceral fat and if you have too much of it. However, these are costly and time-consuming scans and not easily available to everyone. 

Your GP can use general measurements and guidelines to estimate your visceral fat levels and the potential health risks.

You can also buy bioimpedance scales to help measure visceral fat. These work by sending a small electrical current through your body when you step on the sensors, that measures the amount of resistance from body fat. These are available at a range of prices but can only give you an estimation of your body fat.

But there are other simple and free ways you can estimate your visceral fat yourself.

How to measure your visceral fat yourself

One way to estimate your visceral fat is to measure your waist-hip ratio. Here’s how to do it.

Waist-hip ratio

  1. Stand up straight and tall
  2. Find and then measure the smallest part of your waist, this is usually located right above your belly button. This measurement is your waist circumference
  3. Next, find and measure the widest part of your buttocks or hips. This measurement is your hip circumference
  4. Divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference. The result you get is your waist-hip ratio

A 2008 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) cited a 2001 study, which stated that waist-to-hip ratio above .85 for women and .90 for men indicates abdominal obesity.

There is a strong correlation between visceral fat and waist-hip ratio. So if your ratio is above those recommended levels, it’s likely you’ll have high visceral fat levels.

Waist-height ratio (WHtR)

You can also use the waist-height ratio (WHtR). This may be a more suitable method for people with Type 1 diabetes, according to a 2020 study.

All you have to do is divide your waist circumference by your height. This can be done in either centimetres or inches, just make sure both are the same units.

An ideal waist-height ratio is no greater than 50.

📲💡Interested in monitoring your body measurements? You can track changes with the Evergreen Life app. Our body measurement tracker feature in the Evergreen Life app lets you record various results so you can understand your weight loss progress.

Complications from visceral fat

Visceral fat can cause some real health complications. These fat cells do more than just increase the notch on your belt - they can change some of your body’s vital functions.

For instance, visceral fat tissue acts like an organ itself, releasing hormones and inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which can only be processed by the liver. In addition, these substances can cause inflammation and interfere with hormones, leading to changes in hunger, weight and mood.

Research has found that visceral fat can contribute to insulin resistance, increasing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Studies suggest this is because visceral fat secretes retinol binding protein 4 (RBP4), which increases insulin resistance.

Carrying additional visceral fat can also increase your risk of developing certain medical conditions, such as:

5 ways to reduce visceral fat

Have you found that your waist-hip ratio is higher than the safe limit? Don’t worry – there are ways to reduce your visceral fat to healthier levels. Follow our tips for improved health:

1. Give fast food the boot

Refined carbohydrates and sugars contribute heavily to our storage of fat. Firstly, try to cut down on free sugars; that’s found in cakes, sweets, biscuits, chocolate, soft drinks, breakfast cereal and yoghurts etc. Free sugars are also found naturally in honey, unsweetened fruit juice, vegetable juices and smoothies. Try to stick to less than 30g of free sugars per day. It's worth remembering this is a maximum and not a recommended amount; ideally we wouldn’t be having any but if you’d like a sweet treat, try to let it be just that - a treat.

2. Make good food swaps

Beat hunger and reduce insulin spikes with healthy protein choices. Avoid greasy hamburgers, bacon and processed sausages in favour of fish, lean meats such as turkey or chicken, beans and free-range eggs. Eating healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocados and walnuts, or fermented foods like kimchi, live yoghurt and miso can benefit your insulin balance, gut bacteria, hormones, and weight management. Our article on what's in healthy diet has some good tips.

3. Lose the booze.

Alcohol makes you gain weight around your mid-section, without you realising. It’s so easy to guzzle down hundreds, even thousands, of liquid calories. Extra alcohol units also place strain on the liver, which is already working over time to break down the toxic visceral fat acids, if you carry excess visceral fat. Give your liver a break – alternate beers with water. This article on managing your alcohol intake might help.

4. Smoking - be a quitter

Cigarettes take a toll on almost your entire body. Like visceral fat, smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. Take a step towards quitting today by cutting down the number of cigarettes per week. These 10 tips on the NHS website may also help you quit.

5. Move it

Visceral fat loss comes with combining healthy food and a good fitness routine. Research found high-intensity interval training (also known as HIIT) to be the best method for losing visceral fat. It also helps increase your insulin sensitivity. Essentially HIIT involves short bursts of intense exercise alternated with low-intensity recovery periods. Our article on 5 ways to improve your fitness might help.

Did you know you can track your body measurements like weight and visceral fat in the Evergreen Life app? You can also receive more personalised tips on how to improve other aspects of your wellbeing, such as diet, sleep and fitness. And by sharing your what you choose to do and any progress, you can help you and us better understand what works and what doesn’t. So whatever you chose to do, please record it in the app.  Who knows what you may help us learn? Download the app to start your wellness journey:

Written by
Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Meet Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA, Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years' experience as a GP.

Article updated:
June 2, 2021
Reviewed by:
Dr James Harmsworth King MBBS MPhil PhD
Biotechnology & Medical Expert