When It Comes to Body Fat, Location Matters

Find out why belly fat is particularly dangerous for your health.

a close up of a man's beer belly, demonstrating a large amount of belly fat, or visceral fat

Updated on November 7, 2023.

Though any type of body fat may feel like a nuisance if you're trying to lose weight, it's important to recognize that not all fat is created equal. Some types of body fat are more damaging to your health than others. 

To understand whether body fat is threatening your health, it helps to focus on what's happening at your body's most core levels. Here's what to know about body fat—and about belly fat in particular.

Understanding the three kinds of fat

When it comes to its effect on your health, body fat is a bit like real estate: It's all about location.

There are three basic kinds of fat located throughout your body:

  • Triglycerides, fat that runs through the bloodstream
  • Subcutaneous fat, which lies just beneath the skin's surface all over the body
  • Belly fat, also called visceral fat and sometimes called omentum fat, which lies deep within the body, encircling your organs

The omentum is a fatty layer of tissue located inside the belly, situated underneath the muscles in your stomach. It's the storage place for much of your body's belly fat. (The fact that the omentum sits under the muscles explains why some men with lots of belly fat may still have abdominal muscle that otherwise seems firm.)

While this type of fat is more casually known as belly fat, love handles, a spare tire, or a beer belly, healthcare providers refer to it as visceral fat or intra-abdominal adiposity (IAA).

Because this omentum fat is located so close to your organs, it's their most readily available source of energy. 

What belly fat does

In addition to supplying the internal organs with easy energy, the fat released from the omentum rapidly travels to your liver. (Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, like the fat on your thighs, effectively waits before making the rounds through the body.) After moving to the liver, the fat that comes from the omentum is then shipped to the arteries, where it is linked to health risks like high levels of low-density lipoprotein (aka LDL or "bad" cholesterol).

The more omentum fat you have, meanwhile, the less adiponectin you produce. Adiponectin is a stress- and inflammation-reducing chemical related to the hunger-controlling hormone leptin.

For these reasons, the fat on your thighs isn't as harmful to your health as your belly fat. This also helps explain why having large amounts of omentum fat (and thus an "apple" body shape) is considered more harmful than having subcutaneous fat (like thigh fat, which lends the proverbial "pear" body shape). 

Lose belly fat, improve health

What's interesting—and encouraging—is that as soon as you make physiological changes to your omentum, your body starts seeing the effects. That is, once your body senses it's losing that fat, your body's blood-related numbers (such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar) start moving in a healthy direction. These benefits happen within days, before you may notice any physical signs of weight loss.

How your body accumulates belly fat depends on a number of factors that may be out of your control, such as your genes, hormones, and age. (You tend to accumulate more belly fat with time.) But there are ways you can reduce belly fat. The better news it that, given the way it rapidly changes form to move through the body, belly fat tends to respond more quickly to weight-management efforts than does subcutaneous fat. The key is to make the effort. 

These essential moves include:

  • Exercise: Get at least 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise, plus strength training. This approach goes right toward reducing belly fat. 
  • Eat right: Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and avoid simple sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, which are believed to contribute to belly fat accumulation.
  • Priotize sleep: Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to help keep your mood and appetite in check. Too little and too much sleep are both associated with more belly fat.
  • Be mindful: Stress is an inevitable part of life, but too much of it can contribute to the growth of belly fat. Try simple stress-relieving tactics like deep breathing or meditation.
  • Don't smoke: Among its myriad of downsides, smoking can also contribute to the accumulation of belly fat.

 

Article sources open article sources

Harvard Health Publishing. Taking aim at belly fat. April 12, 2021.

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