What does the science actually say about abdominal fat loss and how it’s connected to your diet?
Are there healthy ways to lose belly fat and keep it off, while still giving your body the nutrients and care it needs? And what does the science actually say about abdominal fat loss and how it’s connected to your diet?
1. The different types of abdominal fat
Not all types of fat in our bodies are the same, nor do they carry the same level of potential health risk. Subcutaneous fat is the fat located just beneath our skin and outside of our abdominal wall. According to Harvard Health, subcutaneous fat makes up about 90% of our body’s fat.
a. What is Subcutaneous Fat?
Subcutaneous fat is part of the innermost layer of the skin along with connective tissues. This innermost layer of the skin is also known as the hypodermis, and it helps regulate body temperature and contains blood vessels and nerves.
Subcutaneous fat is one of two types of adipose (fat) tissue, the other being visceral fat. How much subcutaneous fat each person has is unique to their individual genetic makeup.
While subcutaneous fat has several essential roles in the body, too much can be damaging to your health. Keeping your fat levels in check is possible with a nutrient-dense, calorie-balanced diet and adequate exercise.
Subcutaneous fat in the body is located under the skin and above the muscle. Men and women have different typical distributions of subcutaneous fat, with women having more on their hips and thighs. About 90% of body fat is subcutaneous for most individuals.
How much subcutaneous fat you have depends on your genetics and lifestyle. Diet and exercise play an essential role in controlling the amount of subcutaneous fat you carry.
The Roles of Subcutaneous Fat
Subcutaneous fat plays a few essential roles in the body.
Energy Store: It stores energy in the form of lipids for later use and protects your muscles from damage caused by potential impacts. The nerves and blood vessels use this deep fat layer for transport between your muscles and other skin layers.
Part of Skin Structure: Additionally, as part of the innermost skin layer (hypodermis), this fat layer connects the middle skin layer (epidermis) to your muscles and bones.
May Reduce Inflammation: Research has shown that subcutaneous fat may play a protective role in the body concerning the endocrine system and inflammation.
Helps to Produce Hormones: Adipose tissue produces leptin—which helps control feelings of hunger and fullness—and estrogen.
However, there are risks of carrying too much subcutaneous fat and visceral fat, including insulin resistance, hepatic steatosis, metabolic syndrome, and hypertension.
Visceral fat makes up the other 10% of body fat, and this type of fat is what experts warn should be monitored. This is because visceral fat is located beneath our abdominal wall and around our abdominal organs. Too much of this type of fat has been linked to heart disease and other serious illnesses.
Unfortunately, there is no “quick fix” for visceral fat. But research suggests a healthy diet and sustainable weight loss can help you shed this type of belly fat.
b. What is Visceral Fat?
Visceral fat is fat that wraps around your abdominal organs deep inside your body. You can’t always feel it or see it. In fact, you may have a pretty flat tummy and still have visceral fat. That’s sometimes called TOFI, or “thin outside fat inside.”
Only an expensive scan can measure how much belly fat is hiding in you, but your doctor won’t order a test just for that reason.
Too much of any body fat is bad for your health. But compared to the fat that lies just underneath your skin (subcutaneous fat), the visceral kind is more likely to raise your risk for serious medical issues. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol are some of the conditions that are strongly linked to too much fat in your trunk.
Researchers suspect that visceral fat makes more of certain proteins that inflame your body’s tissues and organs and narrow your blood vessels. That can make your blood pressure go up and cause other problems.
2. A balanced, nutrient-dense diet is your best bet
While many people may be searching for that miracle solution to belly fat loss, there isn’t one. This is because even though our culture has marketed the ability to specifically target belly fat with the right foods and exercise, it’s more so about your overall weight management. And researchers have found that losing and maintaining weight loss through a balanced diet and regular exercise can also help keep visceral fat at healthy levels.
Harvard Health states that eating plenty of fiber and complex carbs like whole grains, vegetables, and protein sources like lean meat and legumes can help overall weight loss. They also suggest limiting your intake of added sugars and refined carbohydrates, as this can contribute to weight gain and therefore more belly fat.
3. It’s not just about your diet, though
Diet is certainly one of the major factors in weight loss. In a study published in BMC Public Health, participants that lost weight through diet and exercise didn’t actually have that much of a difference in visceral fat loss as the participants who lost weight through diet only. The exercise and diet group did see a bigger change in subcutaneous fat, though.
Exercise is still an important aspect of weight loss, as are other areas of life. Harvard lists five ways of tackling visceral fat: movement, diet, lowering stress, avoiding tobacco, and getting enough sleep.
One recent study from Mayo Clinic found that lack of sleep was in fact associated with more visceral fat. In other words, make sure you’re getting enough rest every evening.