When you "pinch an inch" around your waistline, that's the relatively harmless subcutaneous fat that sits just below the skin's surface. But if your lower belly is protruding, you've got a more serious problem with visceral fat surrounding your internal organs, warns Harvard Health Publishing. It's critical for your health that you reduce your visceral fat, eating healthy foods and a low-calorie diet — as well as by ramping up your physical activity level.
A visceral fat diet includes fresh vegetables, fruit, lean protein and whole grains that help fill you up and lower your calorie intake.
Dangers of Visceral Fat
Visceral fat sits deep within the belly cavity in between your stomach, liver and intestines, and because it's so close to the liver, the liver can actually turn visceral fat into cholesterol, according to Johns Hopkins University. Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream and can build up in the arteries, causing them to narrow and harden and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. According to Harvard Health Publishing, fat, particularly abdominal fat, is biologically active and can affect the way hormones in the body function. Disruption of hormone function can lead to disease.
In addition to converting to cholesterol, abdominal fat also produces immune system chemicals called cytokines that can further raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. These biochemicals can impact blood pressure and blood clotting. They also affect insulin sensitivity and increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Calories in vs. Calories Out
To a certain extent, genetics determines where your body stores belly fat. If you have an "apple" body shape — more fat around the midsection and less in the lower body — it's easier for you to collect visceral fat, says Harvard Health Publishing. Additionally, the older you get, the more likely you are to gain excess fat in your midsection.
But fat gain is primarily a result of eating more calories than your body needs each day to support physiological function, daily activities of living and any exercise you may engage in. Any calories that surpass these needs are stored as fat — often as visceral fat. Over time, if your body isn't able to use these stores, your fat stores will grow to risky levels.
Figure Out Your Calorie Needs
Reducing visceral fat is the same as reducing fat anywhere on your body. You have to lower your calorie intake below your calorie needs so your body is forced to use stored fat for energy. Gradually, the body will dig into visceral belly fat stores.
First, you have to figure out how many calories you need each day to maintain your weight. It's difficult to pinpoint an exact number, so start with an estimate based on your age, gender and activity level. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, the average moderately active female between the ages of 21 and 50 needs 2,000 to 2,200 calories each day, and the average male needs 2,400 to 2,800 calories daily. If you're sedentary, you need about 200 fewer calories, and if you're active, you need approximately 200 more calories.
To lose visceral fat — and total body fat — you need to eat less than this amount. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you reduce your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories daily, you can lose around 1 to 2 pounds each week. Fat loss isn't that easily predictable, however. This is just an estimate.
You can't target just your belly for fat loss. You have to lose total body fat, which will include the belly. It may take longer to see fat loss from your belly, but if you stick with the calorie deficit, you'll eventually see results.
Visceral Fat Diet
Eating lots of processed foods, fast foods, fried foods and sweets and drinking sugary beverages is a surefire way to pack on visceral fat. In order to lose it, you have to first cut out those foods. While the occasional treat is OK, you can't eat those foods on a regular basis and still lose fat.
Your best bet is to avoid most foods that come in a bag, box or tray. These foods are typically refined, stripped of nutrients and high in fat and/or sugar. Examples include:
- Frozen pizza
- French fries and potato chips
- White bread, white rice, white pasta
- Ice cream
- Fruit juice
- Pastries, cookies and cakes
- Candy bars
- Processed deli meats
- Fatty red meat
- Sugary cereals
- Granola bars
- Flavored yogurt
- Flavored coffee drinks
Quitting these foods can be challenging. Instead, concentrate on finding ways to improve the quality of your diet over time, such as substituting a piece of fruit for a bowl of ice cream after dinner, or taking a salad to work instead of grabbing fast food.
Regular physical activity helps burn excess calories to create a deficit. Health.gov's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular activity each week. Increasing to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 150 minutes of vigorous activity each week offers greater benefit. Adding resistance training builds lean muscle mass, further aiding visceral fat loss.
Eat More Protein and Fiber
A 2018 study in Nutrition asked participants to increase their protein and fiber intake over 12 weeks to a daily goal of 35 grams of fiber and .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. There was no forced calorie restriction, yet participants' calorie intake naturally decreased and they lost weight.
Both fiber and protein are highly satiating nutrients that have been shown to affect subjective measures of appetite control, according to a 2018 crossover study in Current Developments in Nutrition. There are several reasons for this. Both of these nutrients digest slowly, staying in the stomach and intestine longer, providing a more sustained feeling of fullness. Additionally, gastric distention — specifically from high fiber intakes — can delay the release of an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin, according to a 2019 article in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism.
Healthy fiber sources include fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and good protein choices include white meat chicken without skin, fish, eggs, beans, tofu and nuts and seeds.
Choose the Right Carbs
You don't necessarily need to reduce your carb intake on a visceral fat diet, but you do need to choose the right ones. Many foods on the "do not eat" list above are simple carbs. These are simple in structure, and your body breaks them down easily into sugar. These sugars flood your bloodstream, causing a host of ill effects including fatigue, mood swings and food cravings, according to Dr. Mark Hyman.
Complex carbs are digested more slowly. They release a steady supply of sugars into the bloodstream and keep blood sugar levels stable. Complex carbs are found in vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Include Healthy Fats
While saturated and trans fats can have negative effects on your health, unsaturated fats from plant-based foods can improve your health, especially your heart health, according to Harvard Health Publishing. These fats should be a part of your visceral fat diet, and they can be found in foods like avocado, olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds and fish. Fats are higher in calories than carbs and protein, gram for gram, so just be sure to keep your fat intake to 20 to 30 percent of total calories, advises Johns Hopkins.
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition: Chapter 4. Active Adults
- Harvard Health Publishing: Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It
- Johns Hopkins University: The Skinny on Visceral Fat
- Diabetes.co.uk: Visceral Fat (Active Fat)
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level
- Mayo Clinic: Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-loss Basics
- Nutrition: A Nonrestrictive, Weight Loss Diet Focused on Fiber and Lean Protein Increase
- Current Developments in Nutrition: Effect of a High-Protein, High-Fiber Beverage Preload on Subjective Appetite Ratings and Subsequent Ad Libitum Energy Intake in Overweight Men and Women
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance
- Diabetes.co.uk: Simple vs. Complex Carbs
- Dr. Hyman: How to Rewire Your Brain to End Food Cravings
- Harvard Health Publishing: The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-between