Hidden fat 101: What it is, where it is, and how to keep it in check

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  • Hidden fat in the midsection is the most dangerous fat.
  • It is 'biologically active fat' that produces harmful secretions.
  • It is located behind the wall of the abdominal muscles and is associated with several disorders and illnesses.

We make jokes about "a moment on the lips and a lifetime on the hips", but what about the "boep" or the "spare tyre"?

While there are many euphemisms for the extra weight we carry all over our bodies, we tend not to pay enough attention to the fat around our bellies.

The location of our body fat matters a lot more than we may realise, and studies have shown that the fat around our midsection poses much more of a risk than the fat on other areas of the body, like the hips, thighs, and arms.

Healthcare professionals cite the boep or potbelly as a red flag because this is the area where the most dangerous fat is found.

Biologically active fat

A lot of the fat around our midsection may be hidden. It is called visceral fat and is unlike the fat you have just below the surface of your skin, and is classified as “biologically active fat”.

A study of visceral fat identifies it as “a hormonally active component of total body fat, which possesses the unique biochemical characteristics that influence several normal and pathological processes in the human body”.

Harvard Medical School (HMS) describes visceral fat as an endocrine organ or gland, producing hormones and other substances that can profoundly affect our health.

Visceral fat makes up a small proportion of total body fat. Still, abnormally high levels are associated with several disorders and illnesses – from cardiovascular diseases to diabetes and certain cancers.

The cloak-and-dagger fat

Visceral fat is in the midsection, but it resides behind the abdominal wall muscles, surrounding some of our vital organs. 

This means that you’re unable to pinch or grab visceral fat like you would grab that "muffin top", an example of subcutaneous fat (just below the skin’s surface).

Unfortunately, the only reliable way to test for visceral fat is through a CT scan or MRI – both involved and costly processes.

Other ways to gauge our hidden fat

HMS explains that a tape measure is the best home option for keeping track of our visceral fat figures.

Measuring the waist-to-hip (WTH) ratio is one of the do-it-yourself methods for gauging midsection obesity.

How to measure the WTH ratio: 

  • Find the smallest part of your waist – usually just above your belly button.
  • Locate the widest part of your hips and glutes; this would count as your hip measurement.
  • Then divide your waist by your hip circumferences to determine your ratio – for example, 82cm ÷ 105cm = 0.78. (The subject was a woman.)  

The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that a number higher than 0.85 for women and 0.90 for men suggests obesity in the midsection, with a high chance that it is primarily visceral fat.

The WHO also references the Body Mass Index but notes that it should be treated as a rough guide because it may not correspond to the levels of fat in different people.

How did I acquire this 'hidden fat'?

The two main reasons for weight gain are what we eat and a sedentary lifestyle

However, visceral fat increases exponentially when our diets contain a high level of added sugars and simple carbohydrates (which the body quickly converts to sugar).

Dr Winfield Scott Butsch, Director of Obesity Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, said that although a change in diet is highly beneficial, “the key to losing abdominal visceral fat seems to lie in a combination approach”.

Reducing your belly fat

You’d be pleased to know that most of us already know how to keep our belly fat in check – watching what we eat and exercising daily – but many of us struggle to maintain these measures.

When it comes to watching what you eat – besides ditching the added sugar and simple carbohydrates – Butsch recommends avoiding fasting for long periods because this causes the body to hold on to visceral fat.

Include lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, and grains in your diet. Try to get rid of processed foods and junk food.

You should also get moving. Avoid sitting for extended periods and try to get your heart racing for a certain amount of time every day.

While a “combination approach” for ditching the fat refers to diet and exercise, the type of exercise you do also counts.

Include both aerobic and anaerobic exercises. Your workout could consist of brisk walking or running, a high-intensity interval training programme and some strength training.

Yes, that stress does make you look fat

Butsch adds that we need to dial down our stress as it causes the body to release the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, which is known to cause weight gain.

There is also a strong link between visceral fat and stress, which could turn into a vicious cycle.

Read, meditate, listen to music or a podcast – whatever helps you to unwind.

Unfortunately, there is nothing quick about losing belly fat, so avoid those scams and work towards making the necessary lifestyle changes.

READ | Hear are some of the best, proven ways to shed belly fat

READ | The 3 most important changes to make if you're trying to lose belly fat

READ | How belly fat increases your risk of diabetes

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