There are different types of fat in the human body and not all are created equal. We often hear about ‘good fat’ vs ‘bad fat’ that we consume through our diet and we can think about the fat stored in our body in a similar way. There are different ways that fat is stored and used within the body and this in turn influences our health or risk of developing disease.
The same as dietary fat, body fat has some very important functions and is necessary in the body so don’t think that you need to get rid of it all! Having body fat is important, it comes down to the amount and type. Body fat can broadly be divided into two categories: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
Sub meaning ‘under’ and cutaneous, which comes from the word cutis meaning ‘skin’, is very aptly named because, you guessed it, it is fat that is stored just under the skin. If you pinch your thigh, you’ll be getting some subcutaneous fat. Despite what you may have been led to believe, this fat is useful and essential in various ways. It’s an energy store, provides padding from impacts such a falling, provides insulation to help with temperature regulation and helps attach your skin to internal tissues such as muscles and bones. It is essential to have a certain amount of subcutaneous fat for things to function properly. Health complications, such as diabetes or high blood pressure can arise when there is too much present in the body. So it comes down to the golden rule, not too little or not too much.
What is visceral fat?
The word visceral comes from ‘internal parts of the body’ or ‘internal organ’ and this type of fat is not as essential or beneficial for the body. Visceral fat is stored in the abdominal cavity, tucked in snug up against important organs. Without any important functions, your body can be happy and healthy without it. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you cannot see visceral fat because it is sitting much deeper below the skin and around organs. This makes it tricky because even if someone appears to be within a healthy weight range, they may be carrying high levels of visceral fat out of sight.
Why is visceral fat bad for my health?
Visceral fat is dangerous because of this proximity to your organs. It can be hormonally active, meaning that it can secrete chemicals that interfere with normal hormonal regulation. It can put you at risk of stroke, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Often when we try to lose fat, we hope to see changes in our subcutaneous fat because it makes a visible difference. This can be important if you’re carrying too much, but you may not be seeing what is happening internally to visceral fat which can have future health implications.
This is part of the reason why visceral fat is considered harmful. If someone does not suspect they are at risk, they won’t know they need to make changes. This is one of the reasons why a set of normal bathroom scales provides only a very limited picture of your health. They don’t take into consideration a range of important values such as muscle mass, bone density, water weight or visceral fat. It’s great to work towards a healthy weight for yourself but sometimes a single number is just far too simple to be an accurate representation of your health.
What am I supposed to do about this invisible dangerous fat?
If you think you might have high levels, the best thing to do is to measure it so you can decide if you need to make lifestyle or dietary changes.
You can measure your BMI, which may give an indication of a healthy weight range, but it doesn’t take into consideration important things like muscle mass and as discussed before, it is an inaccurate measure of visceral fat.
You can measure waist size, its suggested that a waist circumference of 80cm or more for women and 94cm or more for men are at increased risk. This may be a little more accurate but still not indicative of visceral fat levels.
The best method (after getting an MRI, which is expensive and unrealistic) is to get a body composition scan. These are machines that you often stand on and grip electrical sensors and the whole process is very easy and provides much more useful information.
At The Healthy Eating Hub, we have a great body composition scan machine. You can book a super quick and easy scan where your body composition is measured, you get a full page of results, including muscle mass, bone density and importantly your visceral fat level. One of our scan analysts will talk you through all the information and answer any questions you might have. We can then briefly chat about our nutrition services that can help you make healthy changes and stick to them.