Simply being thin is not necessarily an indicator of health. In fact, a person with “normal” BMI can still have high amounts of visceral fat lurking under the surface creating a “skinny fat” phenomenon.
When it comes to fitness, numbers matter – both on the scale and off. While most of us gauge our fitness by how much we weigh, this single number doesn’t paint a whole picture of our health.
The frustrating truth is that simply being thin is not necessarily an indicator of health. Even those who are considered skinny and have a “normal” BMI may still have high amounts of visceral fat lurking under the surface. This “skinny fat” phenomenon can put you at risk for the same health conditions as those who are visibly overweight, like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Could you be “skinny fat”? Read on to learn more about the causes of visceral fat, how to determine your visceral fat levels, and tips to reduce and prevent this fat build-up.
In this article
What is “Skinny Fat?”
Skinny fat is the term used to describe those who look thin but have a high percentage of body fat compared to muscle. While their BMI (body mass index) may land in a normal range, this doesn’t take into account underlying visceral fat which can have a major impact on health.
Unlike subcutaneous fat which lies under the skin and changes our body shape, visceral fat surrounds the abdominal organs. Because this fat is deep within the body, we can’t see or feel it. While some visceral fat is necessary to protect and cushion the organs, too much visceral fat can lead to serious health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
So, what does having excess visceral fat and being “skinny fat” look like? Since the term “skinny fat” isn’t an official medical term, it doesn’t have a defined set of traits. In many cases, however, someone who is skinny fat may look thin and have a normal weight, but may not have much muscle tone or definition. This could be a sign that they have a high body fat percentage and low muscle mass.
What Causes a Skinny Fat Body?
The skinny fat body type typically develops when we have a poor diet and lack of exercise. But it’s not all about habits. Genetics can often play a significant role in how our bodies process and store fat. Some people are predisposed to having a higher body fat percentage or storing more visceral fat than others.
Your stress levels and sleep schedule may also impact how much visceral fat your body stores. Chronic high stress can throw off your hormone balance, making it more likely that your body will store visceral fat. Irregular sleep or lack of sleep can also change the way your body stores and burns fat, leading to visceral fat build-up.
Visceral Fat: What You Need to Know
Above we learned that visceral fat is the fat that surrounds the abdominal organs deep within the body.
Visceral fat differs from the fat you can see or pinch; this is subcutaneous fat. Both these types of fat are considered belly fat and should be considered when reaching your weight loss and wellness goals. But while excess subcutaneous fat does negatively impact your health, it is not as dangerous as visceral fat.
So, why is visceral fat so bad for us? Researchers are still investigating the links between visceral fat and disease. What we have discovered is that visceral fat increases the production of inflammatory proteins that damage your tissues and organs. These same proteins can cause the blood vessels to narrow, increasing blood pressure (hypertension) and stressing the heart.
The Signs of Visceral Fat
Visceral fat typically makes up about 10% of your overall body fat. So, the higher your total body fat percentage, the higher your visceral fat tends to be. Here are a few signs that you may have increased visceral fat:
If you’ve noticed a growing belly, this is a good sign your visceral fat percentage is increasing (along with that surface-level subcutaneous fat). But, as we’ve seen with the skinny fat body type, some people can have high visceral fat without putting on excess subcutaneous fat.
Lack of muscle definition
Those who have a thin body type but lack muscle definition are likely to have high visceral fat because the overall body fat percentage is high compared to muscle mass.
No matter your belly shape, if you have a diet high in processed foods and an inactive lifestyle, you are more likely to have high levels of visceral fat.
How Visceral Fat is Measured
Curious about exactly how much visceral fat is hiding in your body? The best way to measure visceral fat is also the most difficult to obtain: an MRI. This is a costly procedure that most doctors will not prescribe simply to measure fat percentages.
Thankfully, there are other ways to get a good estimate of your visceral fat levels. A simple way to do this at home is to take a few measurements.
Using a tape measure, measure your waist, just above your hip bones. A result over 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men indicates a high likelihood of excess visceral fat.
Measure your hip size around the widest part of your hips. Then divide the waist measurement above by your hip measurement. A ratio higher than 0.85 in women and 0.9 in men can indicate high belly fat.
Divide your waist measurement by your height. If your result is higher than 0.5, you may be at risk for high visceral fat.
How Do You Get Rid of Visceral Fat?
If you’re concerned about your visceral fat or want to avoid a skinny fat-type body, the first step is to take a look at your lifestyle. Visceral fat most often develops through a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Here are a few ways you can fight against visceral fat and support your heart health:
Foods that Burn Visceral Fat
1) Lean meat or plant-based protein sources
Studies show that those who regularly eat high-quality lean protein sources tend to have lower levels of abdominal fat. Protein also helps fuel your energy for daily tasks, boosts your workouts, and keeps you feeling full – all helpful benefits for reaching your weight loss goals.
Eggs are a great source of protein and healthy fat – two macronutrients for weight loss that keep you energized and satiated. Try eating eggs in the morning to support weight loss and prevent mindless snacking.
Fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are packed with protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats not only help manage your appetite but support brain and heart health.No need to fear the fat! Research shows that eating more omega-3 fatty acids can actually support healthy weight loss (including visceral fat). Studies also show that these fats reduce the inflammatory damage on arteries caused by visceral fat, which gives your overall heart health a boost.
If you don’t like fish, or don’t want to consume it daily, consider taking an omega-3 supplement like Aceva Omega 3 Plus. This easy-to-swallow supplement provides all the daily omega-3 fatty acids you need in a day, without the risk of mercury and lead toxins from high fish consumption.
4) Fermented foods
Fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and Greek yogurt contain probiotics that support your gut. Studies show that a healthy microbiome may improve the body’s insulin resistance and prevent Type II diabetes. They also indicate that a diet rich in probiotics may improve visceral fat burning and weight loss.
5) Monk fruit sweetener
Monk fruit sweetener is a no-calorie natural sweetener made from the small green melon of the same name. Monk fruit, or luo han guo, is a common medicinal used in Traditional Chinese medicine for a range of health benefits. While research on monk fruit sugar is still developing, researchers suggest that swapping refined sugar for this version may offer a healthier way to satisfy your sweet tooth without spiking insulin levels and building up visceral fat deposits.
6) Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils are great sources of plant-based protein that are budget-friendly and easy to cook with. Now, studies show that these ingredients may have fat-burning potential. Both beans and lentils are high in soluble and insoluble fiber. This fiber slows the movement of food through the digestive system to enhance the absorption of nutrients while prolonging your feeling of fullness. Over time, this can lead to weight loss and a significant reduction in visceral fat.
Like beans and lentils, flaxseeds are a good source of soluble fiber, which can help reduce visceral fat. Flaxseeds also contain healthy fats and antioxidants that support heart health.
8) Green tea
Green tea has been touted as a weight loss aid – and for good reason. Research shows that this refreshing beverage helps increase fat burn and weight loss through potent antioxidants called catechins. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is a particularly powerful antioxidant found in green tea that boosts metabolism and mobilizes fat to be burned as energy.
A sprinkle of cinnamon in your meals could help you burn more fat. This aromatic spice has been shown to improve weight loss and even lower BMI when consumed regularly. It also helps reduce blood glucose levels, which supports your endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
Hydration is essential for good health. But did you know drinking enough water could help you lose weight and visceral fat? Studies show that those who drink more water throughout the day lose more abdominal fat on average. Increase your water intake by drinking more water, lemon water, or caffeine-free herbal teas, as well as eating foods with high water content (like fresh fruits and vegetables).
Exercises that Target Visceral Fat
If you want a toned tummy and less visceral fat, crunches alone won’t get you there. The key to belly fat burn is more (not harder) moderate exercise. In addition to eating the foods above, try these exercises that support whole-body fat burn and reduce your total visceral fat.
HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is a cardio workout that pays off. Studies show HIIT routines can burn calories more effectively than other cardio workouts, while specifically burning fat.
2) Treadmill Intervals or Bike Sprints
Aerobic exercise with small breaks (interval training) can help you maintain the right heart rate for optimal fat burn. Try alternating 30 seconds of your 100% effort with 30-second breaks on a treadmill or stationary bike.
3) Brisk Walking
If you’re new to working out, start with brisk walking. While it doesn’t seem like much, brisk walking gets your heart pumping with moderate effort, ideal for fat burn. It can also help you work up to more intense exercises, like cycling or HIIT.
4) Strength/Resistance Training
Losing weight isn’t just about aerobic exercise. Strength training is also necessary for long-lasting results. Weights and resistance bands or machines help you build muscle mass, which reduces your overall muscle-to-fat ratio and helps you burn more calories naturally.
Conquer Hidden Visceral Fat with Functional Nutrition
How your body fat is distributed is just as important as how much body fat you have. Even those who appear thin but have high levels of visceral fat (the “skinny fat” body type) could be at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other cardiovascular conditions.
The best way to guard against dangerous visceral fat is through a healthy diet and exercise plan. Eating plenty of lean protein, healthy fats, fiber, and fresh produce, as well as exercising regularly is the best way to start burning visceral fat.
If the fight against belly fat feels overwhelming, remember this: you don’t have to figure it all out on your own.
Our AlignLife functional nutritionists are here to help you develop a diet and lifestyle plan that is designed for your body. Along with meal plans and supplements (like Aceva’s Omega 3 Plus) to support your fat loss, you’ll also learn how your body metabolizes fat and what healthy habits will keep your belly fat levels low.
Schedule a visit with your local AlignLife practitioner to find out how you can eat well, all while burning visceral fat and supporting your heart health.