Excess fat in your body falls into one of two categories -- subcutaneous "soft fat" which lies right under your skin, and visceral "hard fat," located deep in your abdomen. You lose hard and soft fat through the same basic lifestyle modifications -- managing stress, eating less and moving more -- but you'll generally lose hard fat more easily. Soft fat, especially small deposits in your "trouble zones," generally requires more work to lose.
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What are Hard and Soft Fat?
Both hard fat and soft fat have some similarities; they both store roughly 3,500 calories' worth of fat per pound; they both grow in size when you eat more calories than you burn on a daily basis; and they both shrink in size when you lose weight.
Visceral "hard" fat isn't actually hard. It's located behind your abdominal wall -- surrounding your organs -- and as it accumulates in your belly, it pushes the abdominal wall outward. Because your abdominal wall is made up of harder tissues, including muscle, your extended belly will feel hard to the touch, even though the actual fat inside your abdomen is still soft. Visceral fat has greater access to your blood supply than soft fat, because of its location within your abdomen, and it releases hormones that trigger inflammation. Carrying too much harmful hard fat leads to chronic inflammation levels, which have been linked to diseases ranging from colorectal cancer to cardiovascular disease. Apple shapes -- people who naturally store excess weight in their arms, chest and abdomen -- tend to pack on more visceral fat when they gain weight, compared to pear shapes who store weight in their lower body.
Subcutaneous "soft" fat is squishy and jiggly, and it sits directly under your skin. While having excess soft fat can make you look "flabby," subcutaneous fat doesn't have the same access to your bloodstream as visceral fat, and it actually has little direct effect on your health compared to that harmful deep-belly fat.
Losing Fat: The Basics
No matter how you store fat, you'll lose it by eating fewer calories than you burn. As you restrict calories, you create a calorie deficit -- a gap between how many calories you consume, versus how many you need to carry out your daily activities -- and your body closes the gap by burning the fat stored throughout your body. Any size calorie deficit will trigger fat loss, but it's best to lose fat slowly -- up to 2 pounds per week.
While visceral fat is the most harmful to your health, it's also the first to get burned for energy when you start losing weight. That's why even small weight loss -- as little as 5 or 10 percent of your body weight -- can yield major health benefits by reducing your visceral fat levels. Once you've depleted your visceral fat levels, you'll start burning soft, subcutaneous fat.
Tweaks to Lose More Hard Fat
You can't typically spot reduce -- choose where on your body you'll lose fat -- but a few tips and tricks seem to enhance visceral fat loss. For example, including lots of fiber and whole grains -- like oatmeal, quinoa, whole-wheat bread and brown rice -- in your diet is linked to lower abdominal fat levels, according to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2009. Switching out white pasta for a quinoa or whole-wheat pasta, or starting your day with a whole-grain oatmeal instead of sugary cereal might help reduce hard belly fat.
Pushing harder at the gym also stimulates visceral fat loss, according to a study published in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders in 2009. The study authors compared the effects of moderate-intensity workouts and high-intensity workouts in obese older adults, and they found that the group that worked out harder lost significantly more visceral fat over the course of the 12-week study. Try walking slightly faster, increasing the resistance on your elliptical or upping the incline on your treadmill to gradually increase your exercise intensity.
Taking certain supplements might also help. One study, published in Nutrition Journal in 2013, reported that, when people with a very low calcium intake added a calcium and vitamin D supplement to their routine, they lost more visceral fat than those who didn't take the supplement. While this study shows promise for the benefits of a calcium-vitamin D supplement for some people, you should never take a new supplement without first consulting your doctor.
Other Lifestyle Changes to Shed Hard Fat
Hard and soft fat also respond differently to stress, which you can use to your advantage to minimize visceral fat gain. A high-stress lifestyle -- which might involve over-working and sleep deprivation -- increases the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in your system. Those high cortisol levels interact with both soft and hard fat and actually trigger the redistribution of fat into your abdomen. As a result, out-of-control cortisol levels increase your visceral fat levels, lessening your risk of disease.
Prevent this damaging fat redistribution by taking steps to lower your stress levels. Set realistic goals at work and in your personal life, so you don't feel pulled in a million directions or overwhelmed with a never-ending to-do list. Take time each day to reach out to loved ones and express your feelings, recommends the University of New Hampshire, and practice relaxing activities like tai chi or yoga. Schedule a regular sleep and wake time that allows enough sleep to feel genuinely refreshed, and keep to your schedule on both weekdays and weekends to develop good sleep hygiene.
- Harvard Medical School: Taking Aim at Belly Fat
- Baylor College of Medicine: Adult Energy Needs Calculator
- Journal of Nutrition: Whole-Grain Intake and Cereal Fiber Are Associated with Lower Abdominal Adiposity in Older Adults
- Journal of Nutrition: Calcium Plus Vitamin D3 Supplementation Facilitated Fat Loss in Overweight and Obese College Students with Very-low Calcium Consumption: A Randomized Controlled Trial
- Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders: Influence of Exercise Intensity on Abdominal Fat and Adiponectin in Elderly Adults
- Obesity Research: Stress-Induced Cortisol Response and Fat Distribution in Women
- University of New Hampshire: 10 Stress Reduction Tips
- Precision Nutrition: The Cost of Getting Lean