‘Inner fat’ is a killer lurking in your belly. Here’s how to get rid of it

All of us have fat that we can’t see. That’s because it’s hidden within our bodies. To see it properly, you’d need a body scan — a hideously expensive MRI scan or the more affordable DEXA (which stands for ‘dual energy X-ray absorptiometry’).

This hidden fat matters. For some individuals it matters very much indeed. It may be killing them.

I explain this to some of the people I train. It tends to freak them out, because they think their ‘slightly forward waist’ (as they put it) is cancelled out by their well-defined pecs.

Sorry, but no. Inside that slightly forward waist lurks a potential killer.

We’re talking about visceral fat, which is defined by Diabetes.co.uk as ‘body fat that is stored within the abdominal cavity and is therefore stored around a number of important internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines’.

Another name for it is ‘active fat’, so called because it affects our hormones. It raises the risk for type-2 diabetes, which is why diabetes charities are so worried about it. Heart disease, too. Breast cancer. Colorectal cancer. Even Alzheimer’s.

So it’s nasty stuff, this visceral fat. Firm rather than squishy when you press it. It’s hidden, possibly suffocating your internal organs, but not truly invisible — because the best way to tell if you have too much of it is to check your waistline. Subcutaneous belly fat, easily spotted, is usually accompanied by something even more unpleasant within.

There are plenty of websites out there that will tell you how to check for visceral fat without going to the trouble of a scan. A tape measure is a good place to start.

But, as a personal trainer, it’s my job to take things to the next level: getting rid of the firm (not squishy!) killer in your abdomen.

If you think that doing lots and lots of sit-ups will get rid of your visceral fat, you’re deluding yourself. Like most forms of ‘spot reduction’ (ie, exercises where you concentrate on one part of the body), this is a waste of time.

Sit-ups, yes. As many as you like. But also exercises that involve bigger muscle groups and more than one joint movement — compound exercises, as they’re known. (If it helps, remember the phrase ‘compound before isolation’.)

So: squats, lunges, press-ups, pull-ups, dead lifts… and that’s in addition to aerobic exercises.

But we keep coming back to diet. To lose a pound a week, your calorie deficit must be 500 calories per day. Exercise can play a large part in this, as I’ve said: I’m keen on ‘interval training’, in which you break up your steady jog with short, fast bursts. And do it consistently — three to five days a week.

However, your chances of achieving this deficit, and therefore of reducing visceral fat along with its squishy counterpart, are hugely increased if you eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, healthy fats and protein. All that hype about the Mediterranean diet? On the whole, I think it’s justified. (This academic paper goes into useful detail.)

The exercise and diet recipe is really quite simple, then. But is it easy to achieve? That depends. To put it bluntly, some people just won’t be told.

I’ve trained clients who thought that a savage workout with me once a week — or, for that matter, a weekly dose of British Military Fitness — will do the job. It won’t. Your visceral fat will carry on clinging to your organs, laughing at you before… well, you know how the story ends.

roland.fitness


  • red2black

    Not so long ago a TV programme featured two women who were physiologically close to identical, but one was consistently active as a horse-rider, and the other almost totally sedentary. The claim was (shown by Ultrasound?) that the active lady’s body-fat was dispersed away from her internal organs as a result of regular exercise, but the sedentary lady’s body-fat remained clustered around her internal organs. No mention was made of different types of body-fat (?)

  • CalUKGR

    In my experience it’s all about diet and very little, if anything at all, to do with exercise. Three years ago I changed my diet, away from bad choices to better choices – and a bit less of everything. At that time I was almost 16st. It took me almost a year to lose 3.5st. I’ve been 11.5st since 2014 – and holding nicely ever since without too much effort (if any) ever since.

    I did not exercise to lose weight; everything was achieved around better food choices, calorie awareness (but not OCD calories counting!) and less overall indulgence with ‘bad’ food (though it’s important to state that I still enjoy the odd chocolate bar!).

    People sneer at this, but it is all true. The truth is: diet is everything, if you’re actually serious about losing weight. I’m sure exercise is nice, but apart from making you constantly hungry (and therefore perpetuating the vicious circle of overeating) how exactly would it have helped me?

    Just cut back on your portions and make better choices. I calculated it was possible to lose half a stone every 1-2 months (maybe even more).

    • Clive

      I exercise for 35 mins every weekday on an exercise bike and rowing machine (a week on each at a time). I believe there are benefits to exercise independent of weight loss.

      The one time in my life when I was less than obese (see my other comment above) I lost weight through diet and exercise. At that time I was vegetarian and I ate less, as you describe and also exercised. in 1984/5 over about 18 months I lost 173 pounds but over time put it back on.

      The key is the priority you give to it, I found. I was lucky at that time that I had taken voluntary redundancy from my company and there was a long tail period while work was not as intense as it usually was.

      I put the weight back on again over about 5 years because work did become intense again. Not continuously, I would have periods of weight loss but then work would intervene, I would not be able to exercise because I worked such long hours and when I did not exercise I would eat more.

      I believe low level anxiety (as opposed to clinical anxiety) was also involved because of the intensity of work, it makes you eat more. I think that’s probably an evolutionary effect (slower burning than ‘fight or flight’) but that would take too long to describe.

    • Exercise is certainly good for you in all kinds of ways, but you would have to do a monstrous level of exercise to lose significant amounts of fat and that goes for any fat – inside or out. One pound of fat equals 3000 calories of surplus gorging. In getting it off by exercise, take walking for example. A twelve stone man burns a hundred calories a mile if he is walking at a brisk pace. That means you’d need march thirty miles to lose one pound of fat. Who has time for that, let alone the commitment? A cyclist riding at 12 miles an hour burns only 35 calories a mile on the level, so he’d need to ride three hundred miles to lose a pound or three miles to equal the calorie content of one boring, plain digestive biscuit. If we take the energy content of a thousand calorie take-away curry, then the walker needs to walk ten miles to use up that much energy or ride for thirty miles on the bike.

      I exercise daily and walk for about an hour and a half at four miles an hour. I like it and it is certainly good for me, especially for raising one’s mood, but I am completely certain that to loose the 20 pounds I need to do to get back to my fighting weight, I need to restrict my food intake. Exercise would mean walking 2000 miles.

      I find the best way to restrict my calorie intake is to cut my carbohydrate intake in the evening. I love to eat rice with my evening meal, but I am cutting it out and losing weight steadily. Instead, I eat a large plate of green beans or peas with either meat or fish in whatever sauce I please. This fills me up and I don’t really feel as hungry as I would do if I was trying to fast.

      Alcohol is packed with carbohydrate. A pint of 5% beer contains enough calories to fuel you for a two mile walk or a six mile bike ride. A normal medium glass of wine is almost the same.

      You need to build in some relief or the diet might become all too tedious, so I have two days a week when I eat normally and have a couple of beers. This may slow the weight loss down a bit, but it makes it much more tolerable from a psychological point of view.

      • Callipygian

        Fasting is easy for me because I don’t mind a bit of hunger and I’m too busy to notice that I haven’t had lunch. Even if I don’t wait till dinner to eat, and have an egg at some point, the glycemic response is almost nil (and the calories aren’t much, either). But you’re right that pleasure must be allowed for in any dietary plan. Unless one doesn’t enjoy food — and most of us do!

  • Clive

    I am one fat bastard and I pretty much always have been. I am now 69 and in my whole life I have only briefly been less than obese.

    However, I have been vegan since 1989 (vegetarian since 1978 – being vegetarian involved eating no meat, fish or eggs) and in the year 2000 I was involved in a study conducted by Imperial College at the Hammersmith hospital on the way fat attaches itself to internal organs and the difference it makes if you are vegan.

    It makes a lot of difference, it seems. This piece from a year ago confirms it http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/11767954/I-went-vegan-for-60-days-and-it-changed-my-life.html the author went on a vegan diet for 60 days and …Two weeks in, despite eating lots of vegetable fats, including nuts and seeds, coconut oil on my toast, avocados every which way and truckloads of nut butters, I was surprised to find I had lost 2kg. What’s more, my visceral fat had dropped by half a point (from 3 to 2.5, on a scale of 1 to 59).
    “A vegan diet is obviously very low in saturated fat, which mostly comes from animal products,” says Rick Miller. “But research has also shown the unsaturated fats found in plant-based foods don’t seem to accumulate in visceral fat. That has huge implications for people’s health because it’s visceral fat that leads to things such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”…

    The study – which involved blood tests, a food diary and MRI scans – showed that I had much less fat around my internal organs than average.

  • Norman taralrud-bay

    Reducing carbs can do more than the fantasy ‘Mediterranean Diet’ which has never existed in the form used by mainstream researchers. For evidence read the relevant chapters in The Big Fat Surprise – and weep at how we have been misled over so many years. Exercise helps, of course , for general metabolism. Intermittent Fasting also seems very effective. youtube carries a suggested every weekday fast, google Dr Mike Vanderschelde for a science-based presentation that makes a lot of sense. Weaning ourselves off carbs and onto good fats seems to offer great promise – basically back to 19th century (and before) habits – just not eating as much! It’s the industrialisation and commercialisation (in the sense of competitive advertising) that has led to a dramatic change in our diet.