For people trying to lose weight, it might feel as if all fat is the same. But there are two different types of fat: visceral and subcutaneous. Subcutaneous fat is the jiggly fat visible just under the skin.
Subcutaneous fat is normally harmless and may even protect against some diseases. Visceral fat is fat that surrounds the organs. Though it is not visible from the outside, it is associated with numerous diseases.
It is possible to lose both subcutaneous and visceral fat. While subcutaneous fat loss might be the goal for people who want to fit into smaller clothes, losing visceral fat improves health.
Fast facts on losing subcutaneous fat:
- If the fat is visible or can be pinched, it is subcutaneous fat.
- Subcutaneous fat is not necessarily a risk factor for health issues.
Everyone has some subcutaneous fat, but lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, as well as genetics, affect the amount of subcutaneous fat each person develops. People are more likely to accumulate both visceral and subcutaneous fat when:
- They are sedentary, or spend a lot of time sitting.
- They get little or no aerobic exercise.
- They have little muscle mass.
- They eat more calories than they burn.
- They are insulin resistant or have diabetes.
Research increasingly suggests that subcutaneous fat can play a protective role, particularly in obese people with a lot of visceral fat. However, subcutaneous fat can be a sign of visceral fat. People with lots of subcutaneous fat often also have lots of visceral fat.
Both types of fat can be difficult to lose. Some factors that make fat hard to lose include:
- Insulin resistance: Visceral fat is correlated with insulin resistance, which can make it hard to lose both visceral and subcutaneous fat.
- Weight loss strategies: People with lots of subcutaneous fat often make the mistake of trying to spot-reduce the fat by, for example, doing lots of abdominal exercises. This strategy is less effective than trying to burn fat throughout the body.
- Inflammation: Some research suggests that visceral fat releases cytokines that increase inflammation. This inflammatory response is linked to weight gain and may increase subcutaneous fat.
Burning visceral fat can also burn subcutaneous fat. For optimal health, it is wise to target visceral fat.
Recognizing the interaction between visceral and subcutaneous fat is key to shedding subcutaneous fat. Fitness strategies that burn fat in general, as well as those that counteract the negative effects of visceral fat, can maximize success.
The role of diet in losing subcutaneous fat
To lose weight people need to eat fewer calories than they burn. However, the specific foods eaten matter.
Protein, for example, helps people feel fuller longer. Eating more protein can make it easier to stick to a diet and reduce cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods.
Carbohydrates and sugar are linked to diabetes, visceral fat, and metabolic issues. Some research suggests that excess carbohydrate consumption can cause abdominal fat, both visceral and subcutaneous. Replacing some carbs with higher-protein options can boost metabolism, reduce fat storage, and prevent metabolic issues.
Exercises to burn subcutaneous fat
Subcutaneous fat is one way the body stores energy. This means that burning subcutaneous fat requires burning energy in the form of calories. The exercise routines that are most effective at doing this include:
- Aerobic exercise and cardio: This group includes most fitness routines that increase the heart rate, such as running, swimming, and jumping rope. The more intense the routine and the longer it is performed, the more calories it will burn.
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT): HIIT is a way to increase the fat-burning power of aerobic exercise. It involves short bursts of activity followed by periods of lower activity. For example, a HIIT routine might include running for 1 minute, followed by a 2-minute walk, then another 2 minutes running or doing another intense exercise, such as jumping rope.
- Strength training: Strength-based exercises, such as weightlifting, burn little or no fat. However, muscle burns calories, so building muscle is one strategy for boosting metabolism. People with more muscle burn more calories, even when they are not exercising.
Other lifestyle strategies for fighting subcutaneous fat
Mental health matters for people trying to lose weight. Chronic stress causes the body to continually release a hormone called cortisol. In small, short-lived bursts, cortisol is harmless. But prolonged exposure to cortisol can undermine weight loss. This means that managing stress may help in the effort to shed subcutaneous fat.
Cortisol is particularly harmful to weight loss in people who eat a high-sugar diet. People experiencing bouts of stress should also avoid stress-eating, particularly eating a lot of sweets and carbohydrates.
A diet and exercise strategy that focuses solely on losing subcutaneous fat can be unhealthy.
Although fears about the health effects of obesity have led many people to look at what they see in the mirror, the real culprit in the obesity epidemic may be invisible.
A 2015 study found that people with a lot of visceral fat, or the kind not visible from the outside, were more likely to die when they had less subcutaneous fat. This means that people who have less visible fat are, at least in some cases, at a greater risk of death. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
This evidence suggests that subcutaneous fat may protect the health of people who have lots of visceral fat.