There are several types of fat you can carry in your belly. But as it turns out, the soft fat that you can pinch shouldn't be your biggest concern — it's hard stomach fat that poses a bigger risk to your health.
Here, we'll dig into the difference between soft and hard belly fat, the causes of each, the health risks they bring and how to lose them.
Hard Fat vs. Soft Fat
The reason why your belly fat is hard or soft comes down to the two types of fat in your abdomen — here's what to know about each.
Hard Belly Fat
So, why is your stomach fat hard? Kristi Veltkamp, RDN, a dietitian with Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says that hard fat — which is also called abdominal or visceral fat — is located deep inside your abdomen around your organs, where you can't see it. It makes up about 10 percent of the fat in your body, per Harvard Health Publishing.
However, visceral fat isn't actually hard — its location behind the stomach muscles means that the more visceral fat you accumulate, the more it will push your abdominal wall out. The abdominal wall is made up of more rigid tissue, so the protruding stomach will look and feel hard even though the fat behind it is actually soft. And even if you don't have visible overweight, you can still carry high levels of visceral fat, Veltkamp says.
Visceral fat is the more dangerous of the two types of fat because it's linked to metabolic disturbances, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and breast cancer, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Soft Belly Fat
On the other hand, soft, subcutaneous fat is stored just underneath the skin in areas like the abdomen, hips and arms — it's the kind of squishy belly fat you can pinch, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
About 90 percent of the fat in your body is subcutaneous, per Harvard Health Publishing. And how much you have is linked to physical activity, nutrition and genetics, Steve Herrmann, PhD, American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) member and chief innovation officer with Sanford Health and Research tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Ironically, people tend to worry more about subcutaneous fat because you can see it, even though visceral fat is more dangerous, Hermann says. In fact, as long as you don't have excess subcutaneous fat, a moderate amount of it is normal and supports your overall wellbeing. "There is some research that suggests you can be quite healthy even with higher amounts of subcutaneous fat if you are physically active and maintain a healthy diet," he says.
For instance, your body uses subcutaneous fat to store energy, protect your muscles and bones and help regulate your body temperature, Herrmann says.
Subcutaneous fat also produces beneficial molecules like the hormone leptin, which sends signals to the brain to help you feel full and regulate energy balance, per the Hormone Health Network. In other words, leptin helps you maintain your weight.
Adiponectin is another hormone produced mainly by soft fat that improves the body's sensitivity to insulin and protects against type 2 diabetes, according to a June 2017 review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. It may also help prevent cholesterol buildup in the arteries.
How Much Subcutaneous Fat Should You Have?
While some amount of subcutaneous fat is beneficial, too much of it can potentially lead to health problems. Jim White, RDN, ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, says the following body fat percentages may suggest an adult is carrying too much soft fat (but keep in mind that healthy numbers can vary based on racial and ethnic background):
- People assigned female at birth (AFAB): At or above 25%
- People assigned male at birth (AMAB): At or above 18%
How to Measure It
In addition to the pinch test, you can get an idea of whether the fat you carry around your belly is subcutaneous or visceral by measuring your waist circumference with a tape measure. According to a February 2020 article in Nature Reviews Endocrinology, these waist sizes may indicate an adult has too much visceral fat, whether or not they have overweight:
- People AFAB: 35 in.
- People AMAB: 40 in.
You can also get more granular by comparing your waist circumference to your body mass index (BMI). "A waist circumference higher than the BMI can signify unhealthy levels of visceral fat," White says.
MRI or CT scans can measure visceral fat for you, too, though these are typically costly and time-consuming procedures, according to Harvard Health Publishing. You can also use handheld electrical impedance devices to measure subcutaneous fat, White says.
Why Is Belly Fat Dangerous?
While visceral fat is the more dangerous type of fat, too much subcutaneous fat can also effect your wellbeing. Here are the health risks of carrying too much belly fat.
1. It Can Lead to Hormonal Imbalances
Though some subcutaneous fat is necessary to help your body function at its best, it isn't beneficial if you're carrying it in excess.
Remember that this fat produces leptin, which, in standard doses, helps promote satiety. But having too much of that hormone in your blood — which can occur when you have obesity — can lead to leptin resistance, according to the Hormone Health Network. This is when your body becomes less sensitive to the hormone and thus can't effectively signal when you're full, which can lead to overeating.
2. It Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Conditions
Too much soft belly fat can also take a toll on your heart. "[It] can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, fatty liver disease and sleep apnea," says Amanda Mancini, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified fitness trainer, weight-loss specialist and corrective exercise specialist.
Visceral fat also produces hormones and other substances that can cause inflammation, high blood pressure and get in the way of blood vessel function, all of which can put you at higher risk for heart disease, per Harvard Health Publishing.
3. It May Contribute to Insulin Resistance
In fact, research connected a low muscle mass to visceral fat ratio to increased risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, according to an August 2019 study in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy.
4. It Can Affect Your Risk for or Experience With Cancer
Excess visceral fat can also raise your risk for certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The same goes for colorectal cancer, per the American Cancer Society, as well as pancreatic and uterine cancers, per the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Similarly, research has linked high amounts of visceral fat to poor survival outcomes, increased insulin levels and insulin resistance in people with breast cancer, according to a January 2020 study in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.
5. It May Influence Brain Health
There seems to be a brain connection, too. For instance, a November 2019 study in Obesity found that a higher waist circumference (which indicates visceral fat) is linked to an elevated risk for obesity-related dementia in older adults, regardless of BMI.
6. It May Affect Bone Health
Furthermore, deep belly fat may contribute to decreased bone strength, according to an April 2015 review in Growth Hormone & IGF Research. Some research speculates this is because visceral fat is linked to a reduced amount of growth hormone, which is necessary for bone growth and health.
However, more research is needed to establish this connection.
How Do You Gain It?
There are a number of factors that contribute to the amount and type of belly fat you carry, including:
1. Diet and Exercise
Your weight — and the amount of body fat you have — is largely determined by diet and exercise, or lack thereof, according to Harvard Health Publishing. That's because eating more calories than you burn can cause you to gain weight everywhere, including your abdomen.
"Much of these fats are accumulated in your body from consuming processed carbohydrates, consuming more calories than your body needs, not performing enough exercise and stress," White says.
Your genes may also have something to do with how much belly fat you carry. In fact, for some people, genetics may account for as much as 80 percent of your predisposition to have overweight, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
All of us secrete hormones that help prevent the deposit of visceral fat in the abdominal area. But after age 40, that protection significantly decreases, which can lead to higher levels of hard belly fat, according to the American Institute of Stress.
And older people AFAB in particular may notice an increase in belly fat as they age, even if their weight is in check. This is due to a decrease in estrogen, which influences where fat is distributed, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What's more, you lose muscle as you age (especially if you're not physically active), per the Mayo Clinic. That decrease in muscle means you're not burning as many calories, which makes it harder to maintain your weight and prevent excess fat.
4. Poor Sleep
Sleep — or lack thereof — may also cause belly fat to accumulate. That's because not getting enough sleep can prompt you to snack more often (typically on processed or high-calorie foods) and interferes with leptin function, which can lead you to eat more than usual, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Caffeine can also interfere with sleep, so stop sipping caffeinated beverages around 3 p.m. to make sure you get a good night's rest.
There's also a link between stress and hard fat. In short, the more stressed you are, the more your body releases a hormone called cortisol. And the more cortisol you have circulating, the more visceral fat you tend to store, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Chronic stress leads to increased levels of cortisol in the body and kicks in our fight-or-flight response, Veltkamp says. But because we aren't actually running from life-threatening danger (more likely, we're sitting in traffic or behind a computer), the hormonal reaction that usually gives you an adrenaline rush instead causes fat to store in your abdominal area.
Over time, this process can become a vicious cycle: The more visceral fat and cortisol you have, the more your body will develop fat cells, increase blood glucose, suppress insulin and trigger cravings, all of which — you guessed it — can lead to even more visceral fat storage.
How to Shed Belly Fat
So, how do you lose deep visceral fat (and excess subcutaneous fat, for that matter)? Here are some tips to help:
1. Change Your Diet
One of the most important tips for how to get visceral fat down is to pay attention to what and how much you're eating. Nix refined carbs, sugar and saturated and trans fat, and add in more lean protein, fruits, veggies, whole grains and polyunsaturated fats, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Eating nutritious foods is critical, but to lose both kinds of fat, you need to cut calories, too. Creating a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories a day can help you lose weight at the safe and sustainable pace of about 1 to 2 pounds per week, per the Mayo Clinic.
2. Get Moving
Visceral fat is easier to lose, so it's typically the first to go when you start losing weight, according to Harvard Health Publishing. You have to work a bit harder to lose soft fat, but increasing exercise can help.
Regular exercise is a key part of any weight-loss endeavor, according to the Mayo Clinic. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense cardio, plus at least two strength training sessions per week.
Can You Target Hard Belly Fat With a Workout?
It's not possible to target weight loss to a specific fat deposit or a single body part, according to the American Council on Exercise. The reason you can't target hard fat has to do with the basic biology of how your body burns fat, Veltkamp says:
- Fat is stored in the body as triglycerides.
- When the body needs extra energy (either because you've reduced your calorie intake or increased your activity), it breaks down these triglycerides into glycerol and free fatty acids to be burned for fuel.
- This breakdown happens uniformly throughout the body, and the fatty acids are then circulated in the bloodstream for the whole body to use. That's why weight loss tends to happen evenly through the body and can't be restricted to just one area.
3. Rest Up
Research suggests that a lack of sleep can cause an increase in belly fat, so try getting more shuteye if you're currently lacking. To do so, practice good sleep hygiene with the following habits:
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule
- Sleep in a dark, cool and quiet room
- Try relaxation techniques before bed
4. Manage Stress
Another tip for how to shed visceral fat? Manage your stress levels.
Keeping your stress in check can help mitigate high cortisol levels that contribute to visceral fat, according to the American Institute of Stress. As a bonus, less stress may also help you sleep better, per the American Psychological Association.
Here are some ways to release stress:
- Listen to music
- Take deep breaths
5. Work With a Professional
If you're struggling to reach your fat-loss goals, Herrmann reminds us that many people find it challenging to make significant changes on their own. Just like you could turn to a coach for athletic training or a mentor for business advice, many people may benefit from working with a trained professional to reach their health goals.
"I strongly believe that people have the ability," he says. "But it can be incredibly helpful to have support from a health coach or other professional that will support your changes by focusing on knowledge, skills and behaviors using safe and proven methods."
6. Shift Your Perspective
When it comes to fat reduction and weight loss, Herrmann also recommends looking at the big picture.
"Sometimes, people will focus too much on their weight and fat and not enough on the behaviors that will drive results," he says. "For example, if you want to win a basketball game, you can't be only focused on the score — you should focus on the details that will drive the results, the basic basketball skills and plays that will lead to success."
Similarly, to get the results you want, he says you need to hone in on the basic behaviors that will help your chances of being successful in your exercise and nutrition and build a well-rounded lifestyle. Those behaviors can include:
- Stress management
- Building a social support system
- Quitting harmful habits like smoking