Visceral Fat: What Is It?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 08, 2024
9 min read

Visceral fat is fat that wraps around organs in your belly that are deep inside you. It can surround your liver, intestines, stomach, and other internal organs.

It's healthy and normal to have some visceral fat. Everyone does. This fat can protect your internal organs. Sometimes it's called "active fat" because it affects the way your body functions. But too much visceral fat isn't good for you. It comes with more risk for health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

While this type of fat might go along with having a bigger belly you can see on the outside, you can't see visceral fat. It's also possible you could have a flat stomach and little fat you can see and still have visceral fat inside you. But usually the amount of visceral fat you have will go up along with your other body fat.

Only an expensive scan can measure precisely how much visceral fat you have, but your doctor won’t order a test just for that reason. If you want to get a rough idea at home, you can use a simple tape measure to estimate it based on your waist size.

Visceral fat vs. subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous means under the skin. So subcutaneous fat is the fat that's just underneath your skin. You may have more of this type of fat around your hips, butt, thighs, and belly.

You can pinch this type of fat. You can't do that with visceral fat because it's too deep under your belly muscles. You can have subcutaneous fat in your belly and other parts of your body. Visceral fat is only found deep in your abdomen where most of your internal organs are.

For most people, about 90% of body fat is subcutaneous or under the skin. The other 10% is deeper visceral fat.

Too much of any body fat can be a health risk. But compared to the fat that lies just under your skin, the visceral kind is more likely to raise your risk for serious medical issues. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol are some of the conditions that are strongly linked to too much fat in your belly.

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.

Visceral fat and heart disease

Studies have shown a link between visceral fat and heart disease. For instance, one study found that women with the biggest waists relative to their hip size were twice as likely to get heart disease. Otherwise healthy women who didn't smoke had a 10% increase in heart disease risk as their waist size went up by 2 inches. But most studies don't measure visceral fat directly.

Visceral fat and Alzheimer's disease

Another study found that people with more belly fat and visceral fat had three times the risk for dementia including Alzheimer's disease compared to people with the least belly fat.

Visceral fat and cancer

Studies have suggested a link between visceral fat and cancer, including colorectal cancer. In one study, people with the most visceral fat were three times as likely to get precancerous polyps in their colons.

Visceral fat and type 2 diabetes

Having more visceral fat is linked to insulin resistance, which comes with more risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

Visceral fat and stroke

While the causes aren't clear, studies have shown that people with more visceral fat are more likely to have a stroke. Visceral fat also comes with more risk for having a stroke at an earlier age.

Visceral fat and high cholesterol

Visceral fat has direct links to higher levels of cholesterol, including "bad" LDL cholesterol, in your bloodstream.

Visceral fat and high blood pressure

Visceral fat has also been linked to high blood pressure (hypertension). 

There’s no way to know exactly where and how much visceral fat you have without expensive imaging tests. You’re unlikely to ever need those just to measure your body fat. But there are easier ways to get an idea of how much visceral fat you have. Since visceral fat usually makes up about 10% of all body fat, you can figure out about how much you have based on your percentage of total body fat. If you have more overall body fat than your doctor recommends, you will often have more visceral fat, too.

It's important to remember, though, that no simple measure can tell you everything about your health. If you're worried your health is at risk, ask your doctor what tests they'd recommend. It's better to focus your attention on proven ways to feel better and improve your health than it is to focus on your body shape or size.

Waist size. This is an easy way to get a rough estimate. Wrap a tape measure around your waist over your belly button while keeping your belly relaxed. In women, 35 inches or more can be a sign of more 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 generally considered obese for a person who is 5 feet 9 inches tall. A higher BMI could be a sign you have more visceral fat than is healthy. If you’re Asian American, a BMI of 23 or higher could be a concern. Warning: BMI doesn't work that well to estimate how much fat you have because of differences among people in body composition (the amount of fat, muscle, and bone you have) and shape. These factors also vary among race and ethnic groups, sexes, genders, and ages. BMI may give you an idea, but by itself it can't tell you how much total body fat or visceral fat you have or how healthy you are.

Hip-to-waist ratio. Use a tape measure to find out the size of your waist and your hips, then divide your waist size by your hip size. A ratio of more than 0.85 in women and 0.90 in men may suggest you have more fat in your belly than is healthy, including visceral fat. But studies suggest a simpler measure of your waist may be just as good.

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 comes with more health risks, 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.

You don’t need to follow a special diet or do special exercises to help you lose visceral fat. Just follow the usual strategies for getting healthier and more fit. The same habits you'd follow to get healthier or lose weight will lower your visceral fat if you have too much.

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.

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. Sodas, candy, processed baked goods, and other foods sweetened with fructose should be enjoyed in moderation. 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.

Sleep well. Take steps to get enough sleep of good quality. If you aren't sleeping well or enough, you could be at risk for more visceral fat.

Tackle stress. When you're stressed, your body makes more cortisol hormone. This "fight-or-flight" mode can cause you body to store more visceral fat. Good ways to lower stress include yoga, meditation, or even a walk outside.

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol in moderation is OK. But drinking too much may cause you to gain visceral fat.

If you're worried you have more visceral fat than you'd like and that it may be putting your health at risk, talk to your doctor about your concerns. 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. They may test samples of your blood or pee to get a full picture of your health. Ask if they recommend any specific changes to your diet, exercise, or other habits. But remember, the best way to reduce the amount of visceral fat you have is to follow the same healthy habits you would to get healthier in general.

Visceral fat is the fat you find surrounding your internal organs. While you can't see it or feel it, you can get an idea of how much you have and whether it might be putting your health at risk by tracking your overall body fat. The best way to lower your visceral fat and its associated health risks if you have too much is to follow the same simple steps you would to get healthy in general: Eat right, exercise, sleep, and reduce your stress. If you're worried about visceral fat, see your doctor for advice.

  • How do you get rid of visceral fat?

You can get rid of visceral fat by exercising and eating healthy. It might take a couple of months, but visceral fat is generally easier to lose than than the fat right under your skin. That's because your body breaks it down faster.

  • Does visceral fat burn first?

Visceral fat tends to be the first type you'll lose if you start exercising more. Along with regular exercise, try to get up and take breaks regularly during the day if you sit too much. Take up an active hobby. Even fidgeting can help you burn energy.

  • Is visceral fat the same as belly fat?

Visceral fat is one type of belly fat. It's under your belly muscles and around your organs. The fat in your belly just under your skin is subcutaneous fat.

  • Which foods cause visceral fat?

Foods with lots of trans fats and refined sugar can cause you to gain visceral fat. Aim to eat more whole foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins.

  • Does intermittent fasting reduce visceral fat?

Intermittent fasting means that you eat all of your calories each day during a certain window of time. For example, you could consume all your calories between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Some studies suggest this way of eating can help you reduce visceral fat.