Answer provided by Holly F. Lofton, MD
Research pertaining to obesity has become increasingly popular since the 1980s, and has since led to the classification of obesity as a disease that is defined as “the excessive accumulation of excess body fat. More so, in the last two decades, medical researchers are starting to understand how different types of fat send signals to the rest of our body. Current findings agree that fat acts as an endocrine organ – meaning that it is not a collection of dormant cells, but secretes hormones that influence the other organs in the body.
Visceral fat lies close to our organs, and thus it can easily cause organ damage. For example, fat near the liver can accumulate in the liver cells and subsequently interfere with the liver’s normal function – to eliminate toxins in the body. Throughout decades, this can eventually lead to liver cancer. Visceral fat can also be converted into cholesterol by the liver and travel through the arteries, causing blockages that inhibit normal blood flow. This can lead to strokes and even heart attacks.
Fat deposits in various areas of the body depend on genetics, hormones and other factors. Fat deposits in the lower body, such as the hips, tend to be subcutaneous fat. Fat around the midsection, however, tends to be visceral fat. Because you mentioned that you carry more weight around your abdomen, I want to clearly define the cut-offs for what is considered to be a waist measurement consistent with obesity – and thus a greater health risk.
You can perform a simple measurement to determine if you are more likely to have excess visceral fat. Take a tape measure and place the loose end at your naval. Carefully wrap the tape around you (you may want to get help from a partner to be more exact) at the level of your naval until you reach the loose end. Then, record the number of inches measured. This is your waist circumference (WC).
A waist circumference greater than 35 inches for females, and greater than 40 inches for males, meets the criteria for obesity. This number is significant because it also correlates with a higher percentage of visceral fat as compared to someone below these measures.
In a medical setting, doctors use a special x-ray technique called “Dual-energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA, DXA) which can capture an image of your bones, muscle and fat. DEXA can provide a more accurate assessment of the amount of visceral fat in your body. This test is also commonly used to measure bone density.
The good news is that visceral fat can be reversed by lifestyle changes. Although change will take some work, your heart and liver will thank you in the end!
Here are some simple lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the prevalence of visceral fat:
Finally, I recommend that you work with your healthcare provider for additional recommendations and to monitor your health as you fight against visceral fat. Maintaining consistency with the above lifestyle changes takes dedication and time, so you may want to enlist a support system to help you maximize your outcome and optimize your health!
About the Author:
Holly F. Lofton, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine and surgery at NYU School of Medicine. She treats adults affected by overweight and obesity and designed the popular New You weight-loss program for those who have not been able to achieve weight-loss with conventional methods. She is also a member of the OAC National Board of Directors.
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