Visceral Fat

by Robert S. Dinsmoor

The fat that surrounds the body’s internal organs. Excess visceral fat has been shown to increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Recent research suggests that it may worsen chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a breathing disorder.

Visceral fat tends to accumulate in the abdomen, yielding what is often called the “apple” body shape. Subcutaneous (under-the-skin) fat, by comparison, tends to accumulate in the lower body, creating a “pear” body shape.

Fat is now recognized as being biologically active tissue—essentially an organ of the endocrine system—rather than inert tissue used only for energy storage. Fat cells produce hormones and other substances that can affect health, for better or for worse. Visceral fat, in particular, secretes two cytokines (the body’s chemical messengers) that are involved in inflammation, namely tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). These cytokines are believed to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Visceral fat is associated with higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, lower levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and insulin resistance, all of which can also increase the risk of heart disease.

Overall weight control can be very effective at keeping the body’s visceral fat in check. To this end, experts recommend getting at least 30 to 60 minutes of daily physical activity and following a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources and low in processed foods and added sugars.

Last Reviewed on October 14, 2014

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This column is written by Robert S. Dinsmoor, a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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