When something is specifically referred to as "hard fat," it's pretty easy to get discouraged about your weight loss prospects. Is there really any way to get rid of this stubborn belly fat without turning to extreme measures like visceral fat removal surgery?
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While belly fat, especially hard fat, has a reputation for being the first thing you want to see go and very last thing to actually go, reducing it is possible. In addition to the tried and true weight loss basics, a handful of studies have found particular tweaks to diet and exercise routines that can make all the difference.
Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can be particularly effective visceral fat loss methods. High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, can trim your waistline by increasing fat burning.
What Is Visceral Fat?
Subcutaneous fat is that soft, jiggly stuff that resides just below the skin. This is the type of fatty tissue, also known as "soft fat," that you can grab in your hands and bounce around if you have a little muffin top.
Much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat is visceral "hard" fat (composed of visceral adipose tissue, or VAT), which forms deep in the belly around the internal organs. One of the more obvious hard belly fat symptoms, as you might guess, is what you'll often hear called the "beer belly."
According to Harvard Medical School, one reason why visceral fat raises so much concern is that it releases free fatty acids into the liver, pancreas, heart and other organs that are not built to store fat. This may affect insulin regulation, heart function and blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
The health risks associated with abdominal obesity, which include heart attacks, increased blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, depression and strokes, and insidious abdominal hard fat, only make things worse. As if the desire for a six-pack wasn't enough, this gives you one more reason to target VAT.
Read more: Soft Belly Fat vs. Hard Belly Fat
Calorie Restriction and Intermittent Fasting
In April of 2018, the journal Obesity published findings reiterating the knowledge that calorie restriction packs real benefits for weight loss, noting that "a reduction in caloric intake without malnutrition has consistently been found to produce reductions in body weight." Their meta-analysis of intermittent fasting (IF) — or eating few or no calories in periods of about 12 hours or up to a few days — adds a new wrinkle to that knowledge.
Obesity reports that, in an overview of several fasting studies, IF routines were consistently shown to reduce both overall fat mass and visceral fat. In fact, when compared to calorie restriction, the practice appears to be just as effective and produce similar levels of weight loss.
Bridget Shea, RD, of the University of Vermont Medical Center, backs up findings such as this, noting that "The benefits of intermittent fasting may include weight loss due to calorie restriction, reduced cancer growth, reduce waist circumference in visceral fat mass, increased triglycerides, a reduction in CRP, which is a marker of inflammation, increased insulin resistance and reduced insulin sensitivity."
If you're curious about intermittent fasting as a method for visceral fat reduction or improving your insulin response, Harvard Health Publishing recommends eating only between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. or waiting to eat for 14 hours after the last meal of the day for three days per week, following your regular eating schedule for the other days of the week.
Interval Training and Hard Fat
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) really rose to prominence in the aughts, so it's little wonder Sports Medicine was able to publish a sweeping meta-analysis of 39 studies involving 617 subjects in their February 2018 issue. This wide-ranging study looks into the effects of HIIT as well as low-intensity interval training (LIIT) on total, abdominal and visceral fat.
Sports Medicine found HIIT to a be a "time-efficient" strategy to improve body composition all around, significantly reducing total, abdominal and visceral fat mass in both male and female subjects. In particular, HIIT running targeted total and visceral fat (more so than cycling, the analysis points out).
Likewise, while more intense, HIIT intervals — those at above 90 percent peak heart rate — were more effective at burning total body fat, lower intensity intervals did better at targeting abdominal and visceral fat. If you're confused about the difference between HIIT and LIIT, it's just a matter of scale; think of HIIT as alternating running and sprinting while LIIT alternates jogging and running, never quite reaching the same intense, heart-pumping peaks.
Ways to Reduce Hard Fat
While studies show that focusing on portion control and interval training can help you specifically target dangerous visceral fat, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that "visceral fat responds to the same diet and exercise strategies that can help you shed excess pounds and lower your total body fat."
"Remember the basics. The only way to reduce visceral fat is to lose weight" — Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, 2017
Those strategies, as always, include eating a calorie-controlled diet rich in plant-based food, whole grains and lean protein sources, while going light on processed foods and saturated fats. Alongside that sustained and consistent healthy diet, the U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week, plus strength training twice weekly.
In conjunction, these diet and exercise habits lead to your body burning more calories than it takes in, which will reduce both overall fat mass and, eventually, visceral fat mass. Harvard Health Publishing puts it plainly: "Remember the basics. The only way to reduce visceral fat is to lose weight — and the only way to do that is to burn up more calories with exercise than you take in from food. Sustained weight loss requires both caloric restriction and increased exercise."
Brown Fat Foods List
Speaking of diet, modern research is beginning to find that while VAT is active fat in a bad way, brown adipose tissue (BAT) is active fat in a good way, potentially encouraging your body to increase energy expenditure (aka calorie burn) via heat production.
While eating to burn fat might sound like an oxymoron, research published in the January 2019 issue of Frontiers in Physiology notes some dietary compounds found in common food items that promote BAT activation. Just a few examples of foods that can help turn bad fat to brown fat include:
- Capsaicin and capsinoids, found in hot peppers such as the non-pungent varieties of hot chilis
- Resveratrol, found in red wine, peanuts, grapes and mulberries
- Curcumin, found in turmeric
- The leaves of Camellia Sinensis, which make up green tea
- Menthol, found in peppermint leaves
- Fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood such as salmon
These foods help enhance fat oxidation and have been correlated with both abdominal and visceral fat loss, which makes them ideal choices for your next portion-controlled meal — you know, the recovery meal you're going to have right after your new interval training routine.
Read more: Diets for Visceral Fat
- Mayo Clinic: "Belly Fat in Men: Why Weight Loss Matters"
- NCBI: Sports Medicine: "Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training on Total, Abdominal and Visceral Fat Mass: A Meta-Analysis"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Obesity and Your Health"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Food Ingredients Involved in White-to-Brown Adipose Tissue Conversion and in Calorie Burning"
- NutritionFacts.org: "Boosting Brown Fat Through Diet"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus: "How Much Exercise Do I Need?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Why Worry About Your Waistline?"
- University of Vermont Medical Center: "Intermittent Fasting: Effective or Dangerous?"
- NCBI: Obesity: "Flipping the Metabolic Switch: Understanding and Applying Health Benefits of Fasting"