The fat in your body falls into one of two categories: subcutaneous, or "soft" fat, which lies right under your skin, and visceral, or "hard" fat, located deep in your abdomen and between your organs.
Hard and soft fat play different roles in the body, but hard fat is especially dangerous and linked to a host of health problems, per Harvard Health Publishing. So you may be wondering how to lose visceral fat, and whether the process is the same for subcutaneous fat. (The short answer to that second question? Yes and no.)
Here's what you need to know about hard and soft fat, including the best methods for burning both types.
Soft vs. Hard Fat: What's the Difference?
Kristi Veltkamp, RDN, a dietitian with Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explains that hard fat, which is also called abdominal or visceral fat, is fat stored deep inside the abdomen around the organs, where you can't see it.
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 harder tissue, so the protruding stomach will look and feel "hard" (think: "beer belly") even though the fat behind it is actually soft.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, visceral fat is linked to metabolic disturbances, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as breast cancer and gallbladder problems in women specifically. Even "normal weight" people can have high levels of "hard fat" around their organs that you may not see, but that can be equally as dangerous, cautions Veltkamp.
On the other hand, soft, subcutaneous fat is stored more externally, just underneath the skin in areas like the hips and the arms — in other words, the kind you can pinch. Subcutaneous fat can also be located in the abdominal area, but its location makes it different from visceral fat.
Ironically, Steve Herrmann, PhD, American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) member and chief innovation officer with Sanford Health and Research, points out that subcutaneous fat is the type of fat people tend to worry about most, because it's the kind you can see, but it's actually visceral fat that is the dangerous kind. "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.
According to Herrmann, your body uses subcutaneous fat to store energy and it can protect your muscles and bones as well as help regulate your body temperature. He also explains that the amount of subcutaneous, soft fat a person will have is linked to physical activity, nutrition and of course, genetics. In general, some amount of subcutaneous fat is normal and supports overall health.
Fat Storage in Men vs. Women
Losing fat of any kind can be difficult for some people. Genetics, nutrition and activity level all play a role in how fat is stored in the body. Hormones are also a huge factor, says Veltkamp.
For instance, the male hormone testosterone typically causes men to store more of their visceral fat in the abdominal area, while the female hormone estrogen will cause women to store more subcutaneous fat in their abdomen and lower body. Think "apple" vs. "pear" body shapes.
The American Institute of Stress explains that both men and women secrete hormones that help prevent the deposit of visceral fat in the abdominal area, but after the age of 40, that protection significantly decreases. And in fact, as men and women age, their roles tend to reverse: Men will gain more subcutaneous fat and women will store more visceral abdominal fat as both testosterone and estrogen levels decrease. Overall, as we age, we're more susceptible to collecting deep abdominal fat.
A good indicator of how much visceral fat you have is your waist size, adds Veltkamp. A woman whose waist measures 35 inches or more is likely to have excess visceral fat, while a man whose waist is 40 inches or more may have large visceral fat deposits.
Stress and Visceral Fat
It isn't well understood exactly why visceral fat is stored in the body, Herrmann says, but it is clear that there is a major link between stress and hard fat. In short, according to The American Institute of Stress, 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.
Chronic stress leads to increased levels of cortisol in the body and kicks in our "fight or flight" response, explains Veltkamp. But because we aren't actually running from danger like our ancestors (more likely, we're sitting in traffic or behind a computer), that hormonal reaction that causes cortisol to be fired off instead causes fat to be stored or even redistributed to the 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 increase cravings for junk food, all of which — you guessed it — leads to even more visceral fat storage.
How to Lose Visceral Fat
Some people think that focusing on abdominal exercises — such as sit-ups or planks — is key to losing hard fat because of its location in the body. But while these core moves will strengthen your abdominal muscles, says Herrmann, they don't actually target the underlying fat.
The reason you can't target hard fat has to do with the basic biology of how fat is burned in the body, Veltkamp explains:
- 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.
What you can do, Veltkamp says, is tone certain muscles in your body, which can reduce the appearance of fat; but unless you lose overall body fat, you won't whittle down your middle in a meaningful way.
Ultimately, according to the experts , the best way to reduce visceral fat isn't as exciting as some might hope — it comes down to the basics of increasing physical activity and eating a balanced, reduced-calorie diet.
Herrmann and Veltkamp recommend the following strategies:
The good news? Research shows that although it's the more dangerous kind of fat, visceral fat is actually the easier kind to lose when you increase your activity levels, says Herrmann.
How to Lose Subcutaneous Fat
While soft fat is less worrisome from a health standpoint, it tends to be much more stubborn, and you may need to up your physical activity to blast it away.
One option? Try adding high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your fitness regimen. This type of workout pairs high-intensity exercise intervals with low- to moderate-intensity active recovery phases, per the American College of Sports Medicine. Intervals range from a few seconds to a few minutes, and the intensity of each can vary based on your fitness level.
In addition to improving cardiovascular fitness, HIIT gives you a higher calorie burn in a shorter amount of time when compared to steady cardio. It can also help you shed fat and preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss, per a study published April 2012 in the Journal of Obesity. This is especially important because having more muscle helps you burn more calories at rest.
Remember that how and how quickly you lose weight can vary widely from person to person and can be influenced by genetics and hormones, Veltkamp says. But it's important to remember that our environment — such as our diet and activity levels — can also change how our genes work.
"Some may need to be more careful and work a little harder than others to lose weight, but it is not a 'nail in the coffin' with your genetics at the outset," she says.
Boost Fat Loss With Lifestyle Changes
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 explains. "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."
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, healthy lifestyle. Those behaviors can include:
- Stress management
- Building a social support system
- Working with a health coach as needed
Read more: How to Set a Realistic Goal Weight
And if you are 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 training as an athlete or a mentor in the business world, 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."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- The American Institute of Stress: "Stress, Cortisol and Abdominal Fat"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Interval-based exercise: So many names, so many possibilities"
- Journal of Obesity: "The Effect of High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise on Body Composition of Overweight Young Males"