HealthAgenda

Nutrition

Visceral fat: health problems beneath the surface

While hard to see from the outside, hidden or visceral fat can cause health problems. Here are the signs.

Health Agenda magazine
October 2018

Did you know that a slim frame can hide serious health problems? It can happen if you carry fat around your heart and abdominal organs (like your kidneys and intestines).

Called visceral fat, it impacts the functioning of our hormones, reports Harvard Health. A 2014 study published in Nature Cell Biology reported it could contribute to elevated cholesterolblood sugar levels and blood pressure. This could lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and heart disease.

This state is known as metabolically obese, normal weight (MONW). Signs of MONW include excess visceral fat, reduced muscle mass and low fitness, reports journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. Risk factors include ageing, having an inactive lifestyle and not eating enough protein.

“With MONW, the weight according to their body mass index (BMI) is within normal range: people look thin, but their fat percentage is high and they have a low muscle mass,” explains Dr Michelle Groves, a GP specialising in diabetes and heart disease.

How to check your fat levels

Waist measurement can be a helpful check for visceral fat. For men, this should be below 94cm, and for women, below 80cm. The Heart Foundation has more information on waist measurement.

If you’re over these measurements, or lead an inactive lifestyle, regular check ups with your GP are important. Your doctor may do checks including blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar to get a general indication of your health.

BMI is a common self-assessment. It’s calculated by your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared, with a BMI of 18.5–24.9 considered within the healthy weight range. But BMI and weight alone can’t tell you if you have hidden fat, nor are they an accurate measure of overall health. The World Health Organization says that your BMI should only be used as a rough guide, as everyone has different fat percentages.

There are other ways to check your fat levels, from bone density scans to high-tech scales, but they vary in reliability and cost.

Lifestyle changes to make

Even if your weight or BMI is in the normal range, you should still follow a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

“Just because someone is within a healthy weight range, they don’t have the liberty to eat extremely unhealthily,” says exercise physiologist Jennifer Smallridge. “You can’t necessarily ‘feel’ high cholesterol or high blood pressure, but it does all add up and can start to significantly impact health.”

Regardless of your weight, keep an eye on your cholesterol intake, as high cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease. We can have high cholesterol due to our genes, or poor diet.

Saturated and trans fats in the diet tend to increase ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood. Common sources of saturated fats include animal products like butter, meat fat, beef, lamb, chicken skin and full-cream dairy foods. Trans fats are found in some processed foods like pastries and biscuits and deep-fried foods.

“A healthy diet needs to include lean protein, fibre, fruit and vegetables, while limiting sugar, fat, alcohol and salt,” says Dr Groves. “Through all the fad diets that come and go, the Mediterranean-style diet has proven to be the most beneficial to our overall health and is recommended by many health professionals for diabetics, obese and heart disease patients.”

The Mediterranean diet includes:

  • fresh vegetables
  • fruits
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • legumes
  • whole grains
  • olive oil
  • fish.

It limits:

  • sugar
  • red meat
  • processed foods like sausages or white bread.

Regular exercise is also important. According to one US study, exercising 4 times a week has been proven to be effective inreducing fat around the organs. The study recommend that 2 of the exercise sessions are high intensity, such as interval training or fast cycling, and 2 of the sessions are of moderate intensity (30 minutes of brisk walking, cross-training or swimming).

“The value of exercise also appears to be in preventing the onset of visceral fat in the first place; and interestingly, those in the study who did no exercise for 6 months significantly increased their visceral fat levels,” Smallridge says.

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