There’s an epidemic in Western countries — one few people are aware of. It’s an epidemic of visceral fat, a deep kind of fat that packs around vital organs, like the liver, and is linked with health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
You might assume that only people who are overweight or obese have too much visceral fat, but that’s not the case. Thin people, particularly inactive ones and older individuals, can have enough visceral fat to increase their risk of chronic health problems. They may look thin, but they’re not healthy because they have too much visceral fat and other markers of bad health.
Although it’s not easy to trim down visceral fat, science shows there are ways to reduce your body’s visceral fat burden and improve your health simultaneously.
Signs of Excess Visceral Fat
How do you know if you’re tipping the scales in terms of visceral fat? One sign you’re carrying too much visceral fat is your waist size. If your waist is larger than half your height, you have too much visceral fat.
For example, a person who is five feet six inches, or 66 inches, should have a waist size less than 33 inches. In general, guidelines say a waist size over 35 inches in men and 30 inches in women is a marker of too much visceral fat.
In reality, the only way to know how much visceral fat you have is by doing an imaging study. But waist size is still a good marker, so check your waist size with a tape measure at least once per month and record the value.
If your waist size shows you have too much visceral fat, what can you do about it?
Eat More Fiber
Soluble fiber absorbs water and forms a gel that helps slow down food as it passes through your digestive system. This can help you feel fuller longer and reduce the number of calories you absorb from other foods. Plus, fiber helps with blood glucose control.
One way to reduce visceral fat is by consuming more fiber-rich foods. Fiber is the part of plant foods that your body can’t digest, so it helps you feel full longer and keeps your digestive system healthy. Fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (like beans and lentils).
Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries are also substantial sources of soluble and insoluble fibers and they’re nutrient-rich. They also have many other health benefits such as being anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich, which helps protect against cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems. Non-starchy vegetables, lentils, beans, tree nuts, seeds, and whole grains are other rich sources of fiber.
Stress increases cortisol, a stress hormone that increases visceral fat. When your body produces too much cortisol, it shifts where your body stores fat to your mid-section and boosts deeper visceral fat. Make sure you’re not letting chronic stress take control of your life and health. Reduce stress levels with mind-body activities like yoga and meditation, going for a nature walk, or taking a hot bath.
Focus on Quality Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to health and wellness. Many people don’t realize how important sleep is for immune health, brain function, and more. Plus, numerous studies show lack of sleep increases the stress hormone cortisol and boosts visceral fat.
One study showed that people who slept for 5 hours or less per night had more visceral fat than those who slumbered 7 hours or more per night. So aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every night to keep visceral fat in check. Plus, not sleeping enough increases the appetite hormone ghrelin, so you crave sugary foods and eat more. As you gain weight from eating sugary foods, your body stores some of it as visceral fat. Make sure you get at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night.
Reduce Your Sugar Intake
One way to reduce visceral fat is to cut back on sugar, another contributor to visceral fat. Beware! Sugar is in most ultra-processed foods and beverages, even fruit juice. It also shows up in foods high in fat — like candy and ice cream — and those high in carbs, such as bread and pasta. It’s everywhere!
The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that sugars should make up less than 10% of your total energy intake each day. This means if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 200 calories should come from sugar. How can you lower your sugar intake to get a handle on visceral fat?
Replace sugary beverages with plain water. Soda and fruit drinks are loaded with sugar. If you drink at least one sweetened beverage a day, replacing those calories with water could save you hundreds of calories each week. Plus, studies show that sugar-sweetened beverages are major contributors to visceral fat.
Know where sugar hides. It’s in everything from ketchup and salad dressing to bread, pasta, and yogurt. You might not realize how much sugar you’re consuming until you start counting grams. The best way to do this is by keeping a food diary for a few days.
Read labels carefully. This can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it if you want to know exactly what’s in the food you’re eating. Pay special attention to ingredients listed at the end of a list — these are things manufacturers add for flavor or texture, so they’re often full of added sugars. Even better, avoid packaged foods entirely!
Stay Physically Active With Exercises that Work Large Muscle Groups
Physical activity is a must if you’re trying to tame visceral fat. You’ll get the most benefits by performing exercises that work large muscle groups, like those in your lower body. These larger muscles burn more calories and fat and affect hormones that regulate weight and blood sugar control more. Focus on squats, deadlifts, and dynamic exercises like running or cycling.
Exercise improves insulin sensitivity and reduces inflammation in the body, which can help with weight loss and loss of visceral fat. You can lower visceral fat by staying physically active with exercises that work large muscle groups.
Walking is the most common form of exercise people do, but you’ll gain more benefits by adding hills and short periods of higher-intensity exercise like walking as briskly as possible.
But don’t ignore the benefits of strength training. Focus on exercises that work the large muscles in your lower body, such as squats and deadlifts, for the most return on your time investment.
The takeaway here is that healthy lifestyle changes can help you tame visceral fat. If you’re already doing these things, keep it up and be patient. You can monitor your progress by checking your waist size weekly and seeing if it’s shrinking.
- “How to Get Rid of Visceral Fat – Healthline.” 22 August 2017, healthline.com/nutrition/lose-visceral-fat.
- “The Effect of Exercise on Visceral Adipose Tissue in Overweight Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” by Dirk Vissers, Wendy Hens, Jan Taeymans, Jean-Pierre Baeyens, Jacques Poortmans and Luc Van Gaal, 8 February 2013, PLOS ONE.
- “Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with visceral fat in children” by Claire Gallagher, George Moschonis, Katrina A. Lambert, Eva Karaglani, Christina Mavrogianni, Stavroula Gavrili, Yannis Manios and Bircan Erbas, 19 August 2020, British Journal of Nutrition.
- “The Effects of Fiber on Visceral Fat”by Yoona Kim, 11 January 2019, Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Abdominal Obesity (Second Edition).