Diet & Nutrition
Weight Loss

Abdominal Fat and What to Do about It

Abdominal fat used to be regarded as an inevitable fact of aging, according to Harvard Medical School experts.

But now we know that belly fat is a key risk factor in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and gallbladder surgery.

The Harvard experts explain that fat in the lower body (the pear shape) is subcutaneous, while fat in the abdominal area (the apple shape) is largely visceral. Subcutaneous fat is stored directly under the skin, while visceral fat is stored in the abdominal cavity, near a number of vital organs. According to the Harvard Family Health Guide, several factors, including heredity and hormones, influence where fat ends up.

Visceral fat, which responds to exercise and diet, is fairly easy to reduce and manage. Benefits include lower blood pressure and better cholesterol levels. The good news is that visceral fat yields fairly easily to exercise and diet, with benefits ranging from lower blood pressure to more favorable cholesterol levels. Subcutaneous fat can be harder to reduce, but for people with a normal weight level, it’s not seen as much of a health problem as visceral fat is.

And, say the Harvard experts, fat cells are biologically active. They produce hormones and other substances that can substantial effects on health. In particular, the experts say, abdominal fat disrupts the normal functioning of hormones. As for visceral fat, it manufactures chemicals that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Another reason visceral fat can be harmful is that it is near the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestinal area to the liver. The Harvard experts say that substances released by visceral fat enter the vein and travel to the liver. There, they can affect the production of blood lipids.

Reducing abdominal fat is possible, though, through regular moderate-intensity intensity physical exercise. That means 30 – 60 minutes per day of exercise. Strength training can also help. But the Harvard experts emphasize that “spot exercising” – such as situps – may tighten abdominal fat but won’t reduce visceral fat.

Besides exercise, the experts say, you should pay attention to what, and how much, you eat. Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Avoid saturated fats and tran fats; polyunsaturated fats can help.

For more information on health from the experts at Harvard Medical School, subscribe to the Harvard Health Letter; click here to learn more.