There are songs about the revered combination of measurements “36-24-36”. These dimensions correspond to what is colloquially known as a “brick house” or a woman who carries the majority of her fat in her lower body and breasts, while carrying only a small amount of abdominal fat. She is the ideal, but for many men and women, building physiques with low amounts of abdominal fat remains elusive.
As discussed previously, the percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese is about 70%. Obesity is linked to a number of health concerns from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular disease. For this reason, there is no shortage of public health interventions that target fat loss. With few exceptions, most people looking to transform their bodies are focused on achieving an aesthetic. While some believe that this aesthetic will correspond to a certain weight, we all are aware that two people can weigh the same amount and look completely different, depending on muscle/fat mass and fat distribution.
However, not all fat and, by proxy, methods of fat loss are the same. In the average person, 90% of fat is subcutaneous; it lies in a layer underneath the skin, while the final 10% is visceral. Visceral fat is thought to play a role in a number of health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, asthma breast cancer and colo-rectoral cancer. For women in particular, as age increases into the stage of menopause, the distribution of fat in the body changes and tends to increase.
The easiest way (but not the most accurate way) to estimate your visceral fat is to look in the mirror. Those who tend to have “apple” shapes, even at lower weights, are probably carrying a larger amount of visceral fat. You can also take a tape measure and find out your waist/hip ratio.The World Health Organization states that abdominal obesity has a waist-hip ratio above .9 for males and above .85 for women, so if you are close to these thresholds, you are considered higher risk and should consider taking action steps to prevent the development of chronic disease.
The journey to lose visceral fat is similar to that of any weight loss journey. It starts with a caloric deficit; burn more calories than you take in and you will lose weight. Unfortunately, where you tend to store your fat has to do with hormones and genetics. Moreover, general studies have found that it is easier for men to lose abdominal fat than women. Overall, focusing on the general path to weight loss will decrease abdominal fat. Some people believe that doing exercises targeting the abdomen will reduce this fat, but the fact of the matter is, even if you gain muscle in this area, you will have layers of fat covering your abs and you will not have reduced your abdominal fat at all.
However, there are simple techniques you can use to reduce visceral fat. First of all, eating a nutrient dense diet, high in fiber and low in saturated fats, such as that proposed by MyPlate, can lead to fat loss and thus reduce abdominal fat. Exercise seems to play a bigger role in reducing visceral fat than diet. This may be because individuals who exercise are more likely to maintain muscle mass, which translates into a higher metabolism. For example, one study found that high intensity interval training (which I will cover in a different blog post), even without caloric restriction, was able to be more effective than moderate intensity continuous training at reducing abdominal and visceral fat (Maillard et. al, 2016). Another study found that a large amount of weight loss through exercise was associated with a reduction in abdominal fat and the maintenance of muscle. (Mayo et al, 2003).
The bottom line is that abdominal fat is different from other fat and both men and women struggle to lose it, to differing degrees. In order to reduce this unsightly and menacing culprit, a sound diet and exercise plan tailored to your specific goals is necessary so we can build the body of your dreams, brick by brick.
Mayo, Melissa J.; Grantham, Justin R.; Balasekaran, Govindasamy (2003): Exercise-induced weight loss preferentially reduces abdominal fat. In Medicine and science in sports and exercise 35 (2), pp. 207–213.
Maillard, F., Rousset, S., Pereira, B., Traore, A., Del Amaze, P. D. P., Boirie, Y., ... & Boisseau, N. (2016). High-intensity interval training reduces abdominal fat mass in postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes & metabolism, 42(6), 433-441.