By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Everyone understands the fat they can pinch between their fingers. This is called subcutaneous fat and it's not necessarily always a bad thing. It adds elasticity to our skin, gives us a youthful look, protects us from injury and infection. When it gets extreme is when we get things like love handles and turkey arms (underarm fat).
Though we may see it as being unpleasant, it's not dangerous. Subcutaneous fat is easier to burn off and doesn't pose as much health problems as visceral fat. Visceral fat is the fat around your heart and the rest of your organs, and once you begin to develop an excess quantity of this kind of fat, it becomes easier to gain more fat, and unlike subcutaneous fat, it's much harder to burn off once you've developed it.
We'll naturally begin to get rid of subcutaneous fat as we get older. It's why our skin starts to look thin and older, why our hands look bony, and things sag. What keeps growing is visceral fat.
There is no such thing as being fit with a belly
The easiest way to think of visceral fat is as a parasite that demands more and more food from you and less and less movement. It's a large endocrine gland, and for many, it's their biggest organ. Then imagine the influence this organ has on the rest of your body? On your cravings? And when it grows too large, the amount of hormones it releases to tell you to eat may be too difficult for even the strongest of wills to avoid.
Visceral fat isn't inherently a bad thing. It's a protective barrier for our organs and give us a steady fuel source. When it gets out of hand, it grows into our organs, bathing them in chemicals, like cytokines and TNF-alpha. Cytokines, specifically interleukin-6 has been linked to chronic inflammation and TNF-alpha with cancer.
The bigger your fat gets, the more it will demand, the bigger it will get, the more it will demand, as it continuously damages your body along the way.
Subcutaneous fat helps with metabolism and anti-aging (this is another reason why liposuction may be detrimental to your health as it only removes helpful fat), whereas visceral fat may accelerate aging and lower life expectancy. So just lowering your overall body fat will not increase longevity, only the reduction of visceral fat will.
Muscle vs fat
Visceral fat can also invade your muscles, marbling them like a good steak. Lipid droplets (fat) can actually invade individual muscle cells, making them sluggish at a cellular level. When it invades the liver, you'll have a nightmare of health issues. The muscles and the liver both play a major role in glucose control, but when fat interrupts this process, this leads to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Skinny people aren't safe either
Since this is more an issue of distribution of fat, people of normal weight can still be at high risk for health issues such as type 2 diabetes.
Things you can do
- Avoid sweets and carbs - Insulin is one of the key players in obesity and visceral fat accumulation. Insulin gets spiked when we eat things that are high glycemic. Avoid processed foods which are loaded with sugar (remember sugar has a lot of names and doesn't have to be sweet). Avoid low-fat, which is code for chemical rain storm.
- Strength training - The mortal enemy of fat is muscle. Fat has nearly no mitochondria. Muscle has an abundance of mitochondria, which are the cellular power plants of the body. More fat you have, less muscle you have, less ability to burn fat off (low mitochondria). More muscle you have, less fat you have, more ability to burn fat off (high mitochondria). Fat makes cytokines, muscles make myokines, which lowers inflammation. Nothing has been more detrimental to health than the fear of lifting heavy things and building muscle. Which is why as the popularity of cardio has gone up, so has obesity. Cardio is good for you, but so is strength training (if not more so). Exercise also releases irisin, which tells your fat to burn itself away. Less mitochondria, less energy, less ability to move and burn off fat. Only a fool would avoid building muscle. What does that say about the fitness classes and instructors who actively avoid building muscle?
- More protein and healthy fats - To build muscle, you need more protein. To rely less on sugar as fuel, you need multiple fuel options, fat being one of them.
- More vegetables - Increases fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar, and increases digestion.
- Reset leptin - Other than insulin, the other big player is leptin. It regulates metabolism, body weight, and appetite. Without it, we eat uncontrollably and store everything as fat. It tells our body to stop eating and lose weight. The best way to reset leptin is with good sleep, exercise, avoiding fructose, avoiding lectin and gluten (chemicals in grains), and avoiding severe calorie restriction (this is basically telling leptin that it's out of a job).
- Stress management - Find good coping skills. Find what works for you. Do something, because high amounts of stress causes a trifecta of hormones called adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Visceral fat is just a small part of the damage these three can do. Sometimes changing how you look at stress can be the first step in stress management.
- Avoid alcohol - I know I just told you to manage stress and but don't use alcohol as a coping mechanism. Though you may not drink heavily, not being able to go more than a few days without drinking is still a form of dependency. Alcohol in small quantities can help with circulation (people have taken this one tiny benefit and ran too far with it), but it doesn't outweigh the disruption it causes the liver, the gut microbiota, and it can increase estrogen (which leads to more visceral fat). Ever wonder why guys with a "alcohol gut" look like a pregnant women?
- Prevention - Most of all prevent it. An ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure and in this case, visceral fat only gets stronger as it gets larger. The moment you notice some belly fat is the moment you have to do something about it, otherwise the cravings and lethargy it creates may become too difficult to surmount. And like a parasite it will then only grow bigger and bigger at the sake of the rest of your body, wanting you to be a surrogate that stays still and feeds it.
Risk factors you may not be able to control
- Drugs (medication or recreational)
- Genetic factors
These are still things you should be aware of. With more information and science, there is becoming less and less things we can no longer affect.
The ripple effect and momentum
It's hard to specify with the body. One thing affects another thing and we get a diseasome. Where nearly all diseases (including obesity) are influencers of other diseases, with some linchpins like visceral fat binding a lot of diseases together.
Though in your journey of health, you'll have health stumbles that have been accumulating for years, as you improve one area, other areas will be affected and improve as well. Synergy can work either way, use it to your advantage. Slow the momentum of negative health down, until it stops. Then turn it around. Trying to reverse things overnight will only cause more damage. Take your time. Slow it down until you're no longer getting worse, only then do you begin to try and improve and create an unstoppable momentum towards better health.
Sam Yang from an early age has been obsessed with connecting the dots between martial arts and efficiency, health, mindset, business, science, and habits to improve optimal well-being. For more info, join his newsletter. You can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.