Soft Belly Fat vs. Hard Belly Fat

Pregnant Woman holding hands on belly
Not all belly fat is the same. (Image: Maksym Azovtsev/iStock/GettyImages)

Belly fat is not a physique goal, but it isn't always dangerous. Pinch an inch at your waistline and that's soft belly fat, also known as subcutaneous fat, which acts as insulation and a source of energy for your body.

On the other hand, hard belly fat — also called visceral fat — is located deep in your abdominal cavity around your organs, and is linked to illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. When your belly protrudes forward and isn't squishy -- especially if you measure 40 inches around as a man or 35 inches as a women -- it should be of concern.

Soft vs. Hard Belly Fat

The fat you can see and grab, the kind that hangs over your waistline, is soft subcutaneous fat. Ninety percent of the fat on your body is subcutaneous fat, according to Harvard Health Publications, and the other 10 percent is hard fat you can't see or grab.

Hard, or visceral, belly fat lies under your muscles deep in your abdominal cavity surrounding your vital organs, including the liver and intestines. While you can accumulate either type of fat by eating more calories than your body burns, there's a genetic and hormonal connection to hard belly fat.

Too much fat anywhere is bad for your health, but visceral fat is especially bad, because it releases chemicals associated with inflammation and metabolic stress. This type of belly fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. A diet filled with refined carbs, such as white bread and snack foods, is associated with the development of visceral fat.

While it's never good to have too much fat, the soft, subcutaneous brown belly fat may offer some health benefits, according to a 2015 article published in the journal Diabetes. It seems the subcutaneous fat releases chemicals that help balance the harmful effects of the visceral fat in obese individuals, although more research is needed to confirm the effects this may have on health.

Measure Your Belly

In addition to the pinch test, you can get an idea whether the fat you carry around your belly is subcutaneous or visceral by measuring your waist circumference.

Wrap a tape measure around your waist at your belly button, where the bottom of the tape measure hits the top of your hip bones. This should not be at the narrowest part of your waist. Take the measure as you're breathing out. Be sure to keep the tape taut, but not so tight you're squeezing skin.

A healthy waist size for women is less than 35 inches, and for men less than 40 inches. A large waist measurement comes from visceral fat pushing out against the abdominal wall, and carries the risks associated with the hard fat.

You Gotta Move to Lose

While you might feel lucky if your fat is pinchable, it's harder to lose soft subcutaneous fat than hard visceral fat. Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise — like a fast-paced walk or low-impact aerobics class — most days of the week helps you lose the hard stuff.

You might have to work a little harder to lose the soft fat, according to 2009 study published in Medicine, Science, Sports and Exercise. This study found that high-intensity interval training aimed at burning 400 calories a session three times a week for 16 weeks helped a small group of obese women lose both soft and hard belly fat.

Don't forget strength-training. You can't spot reduce, but you can tone and tighten. While crunches and planks can help the abdominal area, include exercises that work all your major muscles — arms, back, shoulders, glutes and legs — for balance and to stimulate your metabolism.

Eating Right to Lose the Fat

Making the right food choices can also help you lose both types of fat. Limit your intake of the refined carbs linked to visceral fat. Skip the white bread, sugary cereals, crackers, sweets and soda, and, instead, eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Enjoy healthy sources of protein such as poultry, lean beef, fish, eggs, soy, beans, low-fat dairy, and fats such as olive oil, vegetable oil, nuts and seeds.

Eating healthy foods is critical, but to really lose both kinds of fat, you need to cut calories, too. One pound of stored fat theoretically contains 3,500 calories. Creating a daily 500-calorie deficit helps you lose about 1 pound of fat over a week's time. Use an online calorie calculator to estimate calorie needs, and subtract 500 from that number to determine how many calories you need to lose the fat.

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