Visceral Fat: The Hidden Menace
What Is Visceral Fat?
We are well aware of subcutaneous fat, for it is easy to see and you can pinch it with your fingers. It sits just below the skin and covers the definition of your muscles. The less subcutaneous fat you have, the more your muscles show. Visceral fat, on the other hand, surrounds your internal organs, such as the heart, liver, and pancreas. Research is discovering that all fat does not act the same. Visceral fat is more metabolically active, meaning that it sends fat into the bloodstream at a much more rapid pace than subcutaneous fat does. Researchers speculate that when we were hunting our food, our bodies needed to have this type of quick energy for survival. Now, not so much. It keeps our LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels high1.
Other Concerns of Visceral Fat
Visceral fat does more than just pump fat into the bloodstream, raising LDL and triglycerides, which may lead to heart disease if left unchecked. It can also lead to a host of other concerns:
- It produces cytokines. Cytokines are hormones that produce inflammation. Inflammation wrecks havoc on the body. It causes atherosclerosis, tumor growth, oxidation, and aging.
- It increases the stress hormone cortisol and reduces the level of endorphins. The effect of this hormonal action is that one would feel tired, weak, and apathetic.
- It decreases testosterone production, making it harder to increase muscle mass and easier to put on fat. Thus, a negative feedback loop is started that gets more difficult to break over time.
Visceral fat seems to be a major culprit for a whole host of age-related diseases and for a general feeling of ill health. Keeping visceral fat under control is important for fitness and health, perhaps more so than focusing on a slender appearance. Diet and exercise are the most important things you can do to fight the onset of visceral fat, as well as the less dangerous subcutaneous fat, but the question remains: Which are the best diet and exercise approaches?
Deciphering the Research
After examining several articles relating to visceral fat, I found different, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions and recommendations for losing visceral fat and maintaining a healthy muscle/fat ratio.
One study quoted by The Daily Mail shows that even moderate diet and exercise changes make a major impact on visceral fat loss. Another study demonstrates that strength training does not help with visceral fat loss, yet aerobic training does1. A third study shows the exact opposite: High-intensity training works better than low-intensity training (i.e. aerobic training). The second and third studies were more concrete in their diet recommendations, which I will write more about below. As confusing as it may seem to put together a coherent plan, I weighed the research and compared/contrasted it with my years of personal training experience. Drawing on all of these sources, I offer you solid, easy to follow advice for your visceral fat fighting plan.
I wrote the following recommendations three years ago. I have since changed my position. I decided to keep my original recommendations here, followed by my new recommendations in italics, so you can compare and contrast between the two. I did this with the belief that you would have more information to make better decisions for yourself.
Let's start with nutrition. I'll cherry pick the recommendations the will have the largest impact from the research:
- Cut out fructose as much as you can. Several studies, one that is noted here1, clearly show that fructose, along with high fructose corn syrup, encourages visceral fat storage. The best thing you can do is avoid or severely curtail your consumption of sweets. Soda, candy, cakes, and other pastries are the main sources of high fructose corn syrup. Many packaged and processed foods may contain this as well.
- Eat whole grains. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2010) found that people who ate three or more daily servings of whole grains had 10% less visceral fat than those who had hardly any or no whole grains in their diet1. Quinoa, barley, and high-fiber rice (4 grams or more of fiber per serving) are good sources.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The more colorful, the better.
- Calories do play a big role. Visceral fat, just like subcutaneous fat, thrives on excess calories. The general recommendation I give my clients is this: For women, between 1,400 to 1,700 calories a day, and for me, it is 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day.
- Alcohol in moderation. No more than 3 to 4 drinks a week.
A sound nutrition program is not hard to follow. It takes planning and a willingness to stick to it. The good news is that there are plenty of healthy and good tasting foods that you can use to live a healthy life. Put a little more emphasis on the items I listed above and you will go a long way to fighting visceral fat.
My new recommendations:
- Do cut out the fructose, but in all forms. This includes high fructose corn syrup and the fructose in fruit. As a matter of fact, cut back on all forms of sugar. Keep total sugar intake to under 10% of your daily total calories.
- Do not eat whole grains liberally. More specifically, keep your total carb intake to 150 grams a day or less.
- Calories do play a role on fat gain, but not to the degree as previously thought. The types of calories matter more. There is plenty of research suggesting that carbohydrates send signals to the body to store fat. Additionally, carbohydrates prompts the body to over-eat.
- To see fast fat loss, and this is especially important for visceral fat, keep carbohydrate intake to 100 grams a day or less. Women will benefit with 80 grams or less a day.
I am far more successful as a trainer in helping my clients lose unwanted body fat, as well as personally maintaining a high degree of leanness by using a low carb approach. It is now what I recommend.
Now for exercise. As mentioned earlier, some research suggests that aerobic training works better than strength training for visceral fat loss1, and others say that exercise, no matter what it is, is good enough. Before I give my suggestions, I want to cite the above-mentioned study from the Department of Human Services:
The metabolic syndrome is a complex clustering of metabolic defects associated with physical inactivity, abdominal adiposity, and aging.
To examine the effects of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat (AVF) and body composition in obese women with the metabolic syndrome.
Twenty-seven middle-aged obese women (mean +/- SD; age = 51 +/- 9 yr and body mass index = 34 +/- 6 kg x m(-2)) with the metabolic syndrome completed one of three 16-wk aerobic exercise interventions: (i) no-exercise training (Control): seven participants maintained their existing levels of physical activity; (ii) low-intensity exercise training (LIET): 11 participants exercised 5 d x wk(-1) at an intensity < or = lactate threshold (LT); and (iii) high-intensity exercise training (HIET): nine participants exercised 3 d x wk(-1) at an intensity > LT and 2 d x wk(-1) < or = LT. Exercise time was adjusted to maintain caloric expenditure (400 kcal per session). Single-slice computed tomography scans obtained at the L4-L5 disc space and midthigh were used to determine abdominal fat and thigh muscle cross-sectional areas. Percent body fat was assessed by air displacement plethysmography.
HIET significantly reduced total abdominal fat (P < 0.001), abdominal subcutaneous fat (P = 0.034), and AVF (P = 0.010). There were no significant changes observed in any of these parameters within the Control or the LIET conditions.
The present data indicate that body composition changes are affected by the intensity of exercise training with HIET more effectively for reducing total abdominal fat, subcutaneous abdominal fat, and AVF in obese women with the metabolic syndrome.
Abstract studies. Dry, boring, gobbledygook. Got to love them. Allow me to decipher what this study says.
My Exercise Recommendations
The main purpose of the study was to see what kind of impact exercise intensity had on visceral fat loss for middle-aged women who have metabolic syndrome. The researchers wanted to see if low-intensity or high-intensity exercise was better for the battle against visceral fat. All of the women, except those in the control group, exercised five times a week. The high intensity exercisers did hard exercise three times a week (i.e. they trained above the anaerobic threshold), and low-intensity exercise the remaining two times a week.
The low-intensity exercisers worked out only five times a week. Exercise time was adjusted so that caloric expenditure matched for both the low-intensity and high-intensity exercisers to stabilize this variable (very good!). They used advanced methods for measuring body fat along with visceral fat (I admit, I am not familiar with air displacement plethysmography).
The conclusions from the study shows high-intensity exercise to be more effective than low- intensity exercise for visceral fat loss in middle-aged women with metabolic syndrome. To take it further, it makes sense that these kinds of results can work on middle-aged men too, and even people without metabolic syndrome. Thus, this study bears weight to intense excise working better for visceral fat loss.
Aerobic training came into vogue in the early 1980s. This was largely due to the Cooper Institute strongly favoring aerobic exercise. Jim Fixx, who was a long distance runner who wrote an influential book touting the benefits of aerobic exercise, further encouraged this trend, as did Jane Fonda and her workout tapes. At the time, research was saying that to lose body fat, one must do aerobic training, and if one wanted to gain muscle, one had to lift weights. There was a lone voice during that era that claimed aerobic training was not very good for fat loss, and more importantly, that too much training wore the body down. His recommendation for the best health benefits (including fat loss) with the least amount of harm to the body was to do brief, hard exercise that challenged the heart and lungs as well as the muscles. Who was this man? Arthur Jones, the inventor of the nautilus machines.
I was strongly influenced by the writings of Dr. Ellington Darden, who worked for Arthur Jones back in the day. He was the one who put Arthur Jones's research to paper. I used to do a lot of aerobic training during that time of my life, but as I practiced more of what Ellington Darden wrote, the less exercise I did (and the harder I trained). I got overall better results and physically felt better.
Over the last 10 years, more research is saying much the same thing Arthur Jones used to recommend; i.e. harder, briefer exercise with more rest between workouts for better health. The study cited above offers proof that this advice works for visceral fat loss too. It makes sense, for when you think about it, visceral fat is very active and meant to be used for quick energy. You need quick energy for intense workouts. These workouts are much more comparable to what our ancestors had to do to survive. We still, apparently, have those same metabolic mechanisms today.
My recommendation, based on personal experience and with clients who want to see fat loss, along with the above study and what many other researchers are saying, is to include intense exercise in your routine.
The Big Picture
A diet low in carbohydrates, with a special emphasis on minimizing fructose (especially high-fructose corn syrup) while maintaining low-carb ratios (150 grams a day or less for men, 80 grams a day or less for women) will help fight the visceral fat. As far as exercise is concerned, to really fight visceral fat, exercise above the lactic acid threshold is your best bet for long term results.
The big picture is this: A diet low in carbohydrates, with a special emphasis on minimizing fructose (especially high-fructose corn syrup), while maintaining low-carb ratios (150 grams a day or less for men, 80 grams a day or less for women) will help fight the visceral fat. As far as exercise is concerned, I do believe that moderate, low-intensity exercise can help, for something is better than nothing. I would like to encourage people who do not like to exercise to at least take this step, but to really fight visceral fat, exercise above the lactic acid threshold is your best bet for long term results.
1. Men's Health, July/August2012. How Fat Attacks. pg. 106-110.