US Pharm. 2018:43(8):19-20.
Hazardous to Your Health
There are two distinct types of fat in our bodies that differ by location and impact on overall health—subcutaneous fat and visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is located under the skin and accounts for 90% of body fat. The remaining 10% is visceral fat, which is found deeper in the body, behind the abdominal muscles and around the intestines, liver, and other organs. Visceral fat is also known as intraabdominal fat because it collects in the abdominal cavity. It has long been known that body fat located in the abdominal cavity in the form of visceral fat poses serious risks to overall health.
Visceral Fat Produces Harmful Chemicals
Traditionally, body fat was thought to be stored passively in cells, waiting to be used for energy by the body. However, research has shown that fat cells are biologically active and function as an endocrine organ by secreting hormones and other molecules. The activity of visceral fat results in an inflammatory state that is strongly linked to metabolic disease, insulin resistance, and an increased risk of death, even in men at normal body weight.
Where fat is stored in the body depends on genes, hormones, diet and exercise habits, and levels of stress. Foods and beverages containing sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juices, more than two alcoholic drinks a day, inadequate protein intake, and insufficient fiber promote the storage of visceral fat. A sedentary or inactive lifestyle, stress, and poor sleep also increase the amount of visceral fat.
Hormones and Belly Fat in Men
In men, adequate levels of testosterone are necessary to maintain a healthy fat distribution. However, research has shown that the presence of visceral fat can interfere with testosterone production, further exacerbating the storage of fat in the belly. Excess abdominal fat not only reduces testosterone production, but is also associated with a rise in the female hormone estradiol in men. It is unclear if testosterone decline associated with aging disrupts the production of testosterone, or if the accumulation of fat via weight gain leads to lower levels of testosterone. Either way, the reduction of visceral fat via lifestyle changes is beneficial for overall health in men.
Identifying Dangerous Belly Fat
While the most exact way to measure visceral fat is by MRI or CT scan, an at-home approach is to calculate the waist-to-hip ratio by dividing the waist measurement by the hip measurement. For example, if the waist measures 56 inches and the hips measure 45 inches, dividing 45 into 56 gives a ratio of 1.2. A waist-to-hip ratio higher than 0.95 in men and 0.85 in women significantly increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke. Simply measure the waist to identify if there is a higher probability of excess visceral fat. In men, a waist measurement over 40 inches (and in women, a waist measurement over 35) indicates an unhealthy accumulation of visceral fat and an increased risk of health problems.
Reducing Excess Visceral Fat
Since lifestyle behaviors cause excess accumulation of visceral fat, modifying these behaviors help reduce it and associated disease risks. Belly fat responds more efficiently to diet and exercise than subcutaneous fat does.
To reduce visceral fat and potentially increase lean muscle mass, add 30 minutes of moderate physical activity to your daily routine on most days of the week. Moderate exercise can include aerobic activity (such as walking) and strength training with weights. Combining a more balanced diet with a regular exercise routine can accelerate the loss of belly fat and improve other cardiometabolic risk factors. Adding more whole fruits and vegetables and minimizing sugar intake from processed foods are effective diet modifications for reducing dangerous fat around the organs. Additionally, quitting smoking, getting more than 5 hours of sleep per night, and managing mental stress have all been proven to reduce the accumulation of belly fat in men.
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