People store fat in two ways – one you can see and one you can’t. The fat you can see is just under the skin in the thighs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen. That’s called subcutaneous fat. The fat you can’t see is deeper inside, around the vital organs – heart, lungs, digestive tract, liver as well as in the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. That’s called visceral fat.
Many people are self-conscious about the fat they can see. But actually, it’s the hidden visceral fat that may be a bigger problem, even for thin people. Having too much of it is linked to a greater chance of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers.
“There has been some skepticism as to whether obesity per se is a bona fide cancer risk factor, rather than the habits that fuel it, including a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle,” said Derek M. Huffman, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, N.Y. “Although those other lifestyle choices play a role, this study unequivocally demonstrates that visceral adiposity is causally linked to intestinal cancer.
Prior research has shown that obesity markedly increases the likelihood of being diagnosed with, and dying from, many cancers. In this animal study, Huffman and his colleagues wanted to see if removing visceral fat in mice genetically prone to developing colon cancer might prevent or lessen the development of these tumors.
To do this they randomly assigned the mice to one of three groups. Mice in the first group underwent a sham surgery and were allowed to eat an unrestricted “buffet style” diet, which resulted in them becoming obese. Those in the second group were also provided an unrestricted diet and became obese, but they had their visceral fat surgically removed at the outset of the study. Mice in the third group underwent a sham surgery, but were then put on a calorie restricted diet causing them to lose visceral fat.
“Our sham-operated obese mice had the most visceral fat, developed the greatest number of intestinal tumors, and had the worst overall survival,” Huffman said. “However, mice that had less visceral fat, either by surgical removal or a calorie-restricted diet, had a reduction in the number of intestinal tumors. This was particularly remarkable in the case of our group where visceral fat was surgically removed, because these mice were still obese, they just had very little abdominal fat.”
The researchers then subdivided the groups by gender. In female mice, the removal of visceral fat was significantly related to a reduction in intestinal tumors, but calorie restriction was not. In male mice, calorie restriction had a significant effect on intestinal tumors, but removal of visceral fat did not.
These finding suggest what most women have known for years i.e., that there are important gender differences when it comes to weight. But it also provided an explanation for how belly fat, diet and cancer risk are linked. In addition, the study emphasizes the need to promote strategies that reduce abdominal fat in obese individuals.
So how can you get rid of this dangerous deep belly fat? According to experts, there are four: exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management.
Exercise: Vigorous exercise trims fat, including visceral fat. It can also slow down the build-up of visceral fat that tends to happen over the years. But forget spot-reducing. There aren’t any moves you can do that specifically target visceral fat. Half an hour of vigorous aerobic exercise, done four times a week is ideal. Jog, if you’re already fit, or walk briskly at an incline on a treadmill if you’re not yet ready for jogging. Vigorous workouts on stationary bikes and elliptical or rowing machines are also effective.
Diet: There is no magic diet for belly fat. But when you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually goes first. A fiber-rich diet may help. Research shows that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day, without any other diet changes, build up less visceral fat over time than others. That’s as easy as eating two small apples or a cup of green peas.
Sleep: Getting the right amount of shut eye helps. In one study, people who got six to seven hours of sleep per night gained less visceral fat over 5 years compared to those who slept five or fewer hours per night or eight or more hours per night.
Stress: It’s unavoidable, but what you do with your stress matters. When you’re stressed you tend not to make the best food choices when they’re stressed. Getting social support from friends and family, meditating, and exercising can all help to tame stress.
Short on time? If you could only afford the time to do one of these things, exercise probably has the most immediate benefits, because it tackles both obesity and stress.