Visceral fat, in contrast to subcutaneous fat – the type of fat you can pinch, lies hidden under the surface. You may not be able to see it, but visceral fat poses a far greater health risk than subcutaneous fat.
It is stored dangerously close to vital organs such as the liver and intestines, which means carrying too much of it can trigger a number of chronic and potentially life-threatening diseases.
Visceral fat build-up is usually the result of unhealthy dietary decisions so drastically cutting back on the worst culprits can help to reduce the harmful belly fat.
According to research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, one of the main dietary offers is sugar-sweetened beverages.
Data from the Framingham Heart Study – a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular cohort study of residents of the city of Framingham, Massachusetts – showed that among middle-aged adults, there was a direct correlation between greater sweetened beverage consumption and increased visceral fat.
After looking at both sugar-sweetened beverages and diet soda consumption, the researchers did not identify this association with diet soda, which is often promoted as low in calories and sugar.
“There is evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” said Caroline S. Fox, M.D., M.P.H, lead study author and a former investigator with the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
She continued: “To policy makers, this study adds another piece of evidence to the growing body of research suggesting sugar-sweetened beverages may be harmful to our health.”
While the exact biological mechanism is unknown, Jiantao Ma, M.D., Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow at the NIH and co-leader of the study, said that it’s possible that added sugars found in sugary beverages may be the culprit.
This explanation is consistent with a growing body of evidence that links added sugars to visceral fat gain.
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Research shows that added sugar contains roughly 50 percent fructose, a simple sugar that is metabolised by the liver.
In large amounts, fructose can get turned into fat by the liver and this may increase visceral fat storage.
This process also suggests that eating less added sugar and fructose may be an effective way to lose visceral fat.
Additionally, in a study in 41 children aged nine to 18, scientists replaced fructose in their diets with starch that provided the same amount of calories.
They found that this simple change reduced liver fat by 3.4 percent and visceral fat by 10.6 percent in just 10 days.
In addition to shunning the worst dietary offenders, you should pay attention to portion size, and emphasise complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and lean protein to combat the harmful belly fat, advises Harvard Health.
Engaging in physical exercise is another proven way to help reduce the harmful belly fat.
Harvard Health recommends engaging in regular moderate-intensity physical activity — at least 30 minutes per day (and perhaps up to 60 minutes per day) to control weight and lose belly fat.
Many studies support this advice, showing that aerobic exercise in particular can help you lose visceral fat, even without dieting.
For example, an analysis of 15 studies in 852 people compared how well different types of exercise reduced visceral fat without dieting.
They found that moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercises were most effective at reducing visceral fat without dieting.
Strength training (exercising with weights) may also help fight visceral fat, although, as Harvard Health notes, spot exercising, such as doing sit-ups, can tighten abdominal muscles, but it won’t attack visceral fat.