The Most Dangerous Fat Is the Easiest to Lose

It’s every weight loss enthusiast’s dream to zap belly fat but, far from pure vanity, there’s actually a reason why having a lot of fat in the abdominal region can be dangerous. Fat is stored all over our body, but how does an expanding waistline grow your risk for chronic illness?

  • Location, Location, Location: Your body’s fat impacts your health differently depending on where it’s stored. While most fat found on other parts of our bodies (think arms, legs, buttocks) are considered “subcutaneous fat,” belly fat is more likely to be “visceral.”
  • Pinchable versus Pressable: “Subcutaneous fat” is the pinchable, squishy fat right between your skin and muscle that helps keep you warm, cushions you against shock, and stores extra calories. “Visceral fat” stores calories too, but isn’t as pinchable because it is located in and around your organs. It’s hidden deep within the belly region, which is what makes it firm (rather than squishy) when you press it.
  • Proximity: Fat doesn’t just store calories—it’s a living tissue capable of producing and releasing hormones that affect your other organs. Because visceral fat sits near our organs, its release of these chemicals is poorly situated. Having more visceral fat can raise your LDL (a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol) and blood pressure. Visceral fat can also make you less sensitive to insulin, which increases your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

Telling Bad Belly Fat Apart

Even if you’re thin, you can still have visceral fat around the abdominal region—being “skinny” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. There’s no sure-fire way to tell visceral from subcutaneous fat short of an expensive CT scan, but it’s important for you to get a rough idea of what your visceral stores are. Here are a few tricks to figure out where your belly stands:

  1. Apples and Pears: You’re probably wondering, “What does fruit have to do with it?” These two fruits give a quick visual of where most of your fat is stored on the body. Pears tend to store fat in the lower extremities (hips, thighs, buttocks) as subcutaneous fat while apples tend to store fat in the upper region (belly, chest) as visceral fat. It takes a quick inspection, but this is an imperfect way to tell these two fats apart.
  2. Waist circumference (WC): Feel for the top of your hip bone (it’s at the same level as the top of your belly button) and circle a tape measure around this point. Remember to relax and don’t suck in your gut (be honest!). Take 2-3 measurements and figure out the average. Men should have a WC of less than 40 inches (102 cm) and women should have a WC of less than 35 inches (89 cm).
  3. Waist-to-Hip Ratio: The waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) takes the circumference of your waist (see above) and divides it by the circumference of your hips. To measure your hips, stand in front of a mirror then figure out the widest part of your butt and measure that circumference. Then use this formula:
    WHR = (Waist circumference) / (Hip circumference).
    Men should have a WHR of less than 1 while women should have a WHR of less than 0.8.
  4. Know Your Family Healthy History: If your parents or siblings have insulin resistance, heart disease or non-alcoholic fatty liver, you may be at a greater risk for storing visceral fat. Keeping an eye on your visceral fat may be beneficial, but know that the causes of these chronic diseases are complex. If you’re in doubt, it’s best to speak with your healthcare provider.

Banishing Visceral Fat

If you fall in the normal range for WC and WHR, that’s great! Keep working at your weight goals as you see fit. If you’re not there, don’t despair. Because of its proximity to the liver, visceral fat is usually the easier fat to burn. It’s the less risky subcutaneous fat that likes to stick around.

Unfortunately, you can’t forcefully spot reduce fat around your belly no matter how many crunches you do. The next best thing is to live a healthy lifestyle:

  • Go beyond weight tracking. You can track your waist, hip and even neck circumference in the app. Use this feature to see how your measurements change over time as you lose weight.
  • Sweat for 30-60 minutes each day. Visceral fat responds well to regular endurance exercises, such as running, biking, rowing, swimming, that elevate your heart rate. As your body uses fat to fuel exercise, it’ll start using up your visceral stores.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Eat a diet high in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein with calories set for gradual weight loss (e.g. about 1-2 pounds per week). Cut way back on added sugars and alcohol since these nutrients will more likely end up as visceral fat.
  • Sleep more, stress less. It’s easier said than done, but in order to take care of your physical body, you have to take care of your mental state. Sleep loss and stress can sabotage your health and fitness goals, so learn more about getting a quality night’s rest and usemeditation or yoga to calm your mind. Remember, it’s not just about your health; it’s about your happiness, too.

Saturated Fat is Back... Really!

A slew of recent magazine and newspaper articles is introducing laypeople to what holistically-minded healthcare practitioners have recognized for years: the advice to severely limit dietary fat in favor of starchy carbohydrates-which has been institutionalized and entrenched in government nutrition recommendations, with popular belief following in lock-step-may, in fact, be one of the primary drivers of the obesity and chronic disease epidemics it was originally intended to prevent.

 

The first step was the popularization of the Mediterranean diet, thanks to mainstream medicine's embrace of monounsaturated fats-most commonly found in olive oil, avocado, and nuts and seeds-as well as the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in fatty cold water fish, flax, and chia. But what is really making headlines these days is the massive shift in thinking regarding saturated fats-the ones found in many of the foods we have long been advised to avoid for the sake of heart health and maintaining a healthy body weight: red meat, butter, full-fat dairy, and egg yolks.

The turning of this tide owes itself to a growing body of scientific literature supporting the efficacy of reduced carbohydrate diets-even ones that contain relatively high amounts of not just total fat, but of saturated fat, in particular-for improving a wide array of health conditions, including diabetes, PCOS, heart disease, hypertension, and multiple features of metabolic syndrome.

Researchers who have surveyed the body of evidence supposedly linking saturated fats to a slew of health woes have come to some surprising conclusions. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease." And, "Despite the conventional wisdom that reduced dietary saturated fat intake is beneficial for cardiovascular health, the evidence for a positive, independent association is lacking." This reflected an earlier AJCN paper, which found that, regarding the influence of saturated fat on heart disease, "The evidence is not strong, and, overall, dietary intervention by lowering saturated fat intake does not lower the incidence of nonfatal CAD; nor does such dietary intervention lower coronary disease or total mortality."

Other researchers have reported similar findings: "The lack of any clear evidence that saturated fats are promoting any of the conditions that can be attributed to PUFA makes one wonder how saturated fats got such a bad reputation in the health literature. The influence of dietary fats on serum cholesterol has been overstated, and a physiological mechanism for saturated fats causing heart disease is still missing."

Dwight Lundell, MD, a heart surgeon with over a quarter-century in practice, has said, "The science that saturated fat alone causes heart disease is non-existent. The science that saturated fat raises blood cholesterol is also very weak. Since we now know that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease, the concern about saturated fat is even more absurd today." Moreover, he goes on to affirm that some of the poor health outcomes medical practitioners commonly see today are the result of overconsumption of the PUFAs that were recommended in place of the naturally occurring saturates: "Mainstream medicine made a terrible mistake when it advised people to avoid saturated fat in favor of foods high in omega-6 fats." We have "simply followed the recommended mainstream diet that is low in fat and high in polyunsaturated fats and carbohydrates, not knowing we were causing repeated injury to our blood vessels. This repeated injury creates chronic inflammation leading to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity." 

Not only are biochemical mechanisms for the supposed dangers of saturated fats largely lacking, but evidence is accumulating that certain types of saturated fats-specifically, the medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut and palm kernel oils-may be beneficial, particularly regarding cognitive function and neurodegenerative diseases.

Of course, the vindication of saturated fat is not an excuse for patients to load up on the bacon. But the good news is, they might be willing to eat a lot more vegetables now, knowing it's okay to melt a nice pat of butter on top!