Visceral fat is fat that wraps around your abdominal organs deep inside your body. You can’t always feel it or see it. In fact, you may have a pretty flat tummy and still have visceral fat. That’s sometimes called TOFI, or "thin outside fat inside."
Only an expensive scan can measure how much belly fat is hiding in you, but your doctor won’t order a test just for that reason.
Dangers of Visceral Fat
Too much of any body fat is bad for your health. But compared to the fat that lies just underneath your skin (subcutaneous fat), the visceral kind is more likely to raise your risk for serious medical issues. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol are some of the conditions that are strongly linked to too much fat in your trunk.
Researchers suspect that visceral fat makes more of certain proteins that inflame your body’s tissues and organs and narrow your blood vessels. That can make your blood pressure go up and cause other problems.
How to Measure It
There’s no way to know where and how much visceral fat is hidden in your body without expensive imaging tests. You’re unlikely to ever need those.
Waist size. This is an easy way to get a rough estimate. Wrap a tape measure around your waist over your belly button. (Don’t suck in your stomach!) In women, 35 inches or more is a sign of visceral fat. In men, it’s 40 inches. Warning: This is a crude tool, especially if you’re a very big person. And if you’re of Asian descent, the benchmark for visceral fat drops to 31.5 inches for women and 35.5 inches for men.
BMI. Body mass index is a formula for how much you weigh relative to your height. Online calculators can do the math for you. A BMI of 30 or higher is overweight. That could be a sign of visceral fat. If you’re Asian American, a BMI of 23 or higher could be a concern.
Hip-to-waist ratio. You divide your waist size by your hip size. Some doctors think the number gives a good idea of your risk for visceral fat. But studies suggest it may be no better than a simple waist measurement.
Body shape. Look in the mirror. Where your body tends to store fat can offer you a clue. If you’re an apple -- a big trunk and slimmer legs -- it often can mean more visceral fat. This body shape is more common among men. Women are more likely to be pears -- with bigger hips and thighs. Research shows that upper body fat is more dangerous to your health, which might be one reason why women usually live longer than men.
Imaging tests. These pricey scans are the only way to check the exact amount of visceral fat you have. If your doctor orders a CT scan or an MRI test to check for another medical condition, they can also get a detailed picture of your visceral fat.
How to Get Rid of It
Keep moving. Exercise can help you shed both visceral fat and subcutaneous fat you can see and pinch. And if you lose weight through diet, exercise can help you keep it off. Every bit helps. Go for walks after dinner. Take the stairs. Bike instead of drive. Aim for at least 30 minutes of this kind of moderate aerobic exercise very day.
It’s also important to keep and to build your muscles. Work out with weights, do resistance training like push-ups and sit-ups, or practice yoga.
Eat smart. Studies suggest that more calcium and vitamin D in your body may be linked to less visceral fat. So load up on leafy greens like collards and spinach. Tofu and sardines are also good picks, as are dairy foods like yogurt, cheese, and milk.
On the other hand, certain foods seem to encourage belly fat. One of them is trans fats, which are found in meats and dairy as well as in deep-fried or processed foods. Also bad are sodas, candy, processed baked goods, and other foods sweetened with fructose. So read the labels and avoid ingredients like “partially hydrogenated oils” or “high-fructose corn syrup.” And follow the usual rules for healthy eating, with lots of fresh produce, whole grains like wheat breads and oatmeal, and lean protein like skinless chicken, fish, eggs, beans, and low-fat dairy.
When to See Your Doctor
If you have any of the signs of visceral fat, talk to your doctor about your health. You can learn if you’re at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and other diseases.
Your doctor also can check your blood pressure, heart rate, and other vital signs. She also may test samples of your blood or pee to get a full picture of your condition.