What is abdominal fat and could it pose a serious risk to our health (Part 1)

 

In this post we’re going to delve deeper into abdominal fat, commonly referred to as “belly fat”. This is usually the type of fat that most people want to lose and is usually the type of fat most associated with potentially serious health risks. We don’t believe there’s a lack of awareness, however, we do believe there may be some people who don’t yet comprehend fully the breadth and depth of this pertinent topic. Therefore, our goal with this post is to provide people with a sound underpinning knowledge about abdominal fat, including what it is, why it matters, and what we can do about it.

At GF Fitness we always want to remain objective and base our content on facts; this post and the one to follow includes a fair amount of information from respected and trusted sources, and we deem everything we’ve included necessary for the purpose of these posts.

How is fat distributed, and why does it matter?

People tend to carry fat in two distinct ways: either under the skin (as subcutaneous fat) or in the abdomen and surrounding internal organs (as visceral fat). The latter is what is often referred to as “belly fat”.

1) Subcutaneous fat – The largest repository of fat is found under the skin and outside the underlying muscle … A common misconception asserts there are different types of subcutaneous fat. The basic concept is that there is regular fat and then there is cellulite, a reportedly different type of fat responsive only to special methods of fat reduction. There is no such anatomical distinction. The term cellulite was coined by a French cosmetologist early in the last century — coined as a means to market beauty products. Cellulite is simply normal fat cell clusters that have hypertrophied sufficiently to press against the skin and produce an irregular surface appearance.

2) Visceral fat – These are the deep deposits found around the internal organs … Although the cell structure of visceral fat is the same as that of subcutaneous fat, it is harder to lose because it is replenished as fast as or in some cases faster than it is depleted. It also is somewhat biologically protected, as its presence serves a protective function for the organs it encases.

According to Dr. Bret Scher, MD:

“Abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk of several health conditions, including:

1) metabolic disease

2) type 2 diabetes

3) heart disease

4) Inflammation

Belly fat is even associated with a shorter life.

Even ‘normal weight’ people with extra belly fat are at increased risk of health complications.

As we saw in 2020, more visceral fat is associated with a higher risk of severe Covid-19 complications.

Fortunately, excess belly fat can be reduced. Studies show that reducing it improves metabolic health and is likely to improve overall health.

We all carry subcutaneous and visceral fat, regardless of gender. This is important to note because it means that nobody is immune to storing excess abdominal fat.

The exact location of excess fat storage matters in terms of its risk profile i.e., fat stored on the back of the arm is less risky than fat stored around the abdomen, however, because the determination of the location/s of excess fat storage is largely driven by genetics, we should only note it for our awareness, as this is beyond our control. Our time would be much better spent on focusing and addressing the causes that are within out control.

Functions of fat

Fat has, for the most part, been demonised since the late 1970s when the federal government of the USA started promoting low-fat diets; why they believed this was correct requires a separate post altogether. We urge everybody to set aside any preconceived notions about fat as they digest this post. Let’s take a look at several functions of fat below:

“Fat carries out many crucial roles in the body apart from being a pretty effective energy storage medium. At the cellular level, every one of the billions of cells in the human body requires fat as a component of its membrane structures. At the biochemical level, a tremendous number of the body’s important chemicals are composed of or created from fats — [o]estrogen and testosterone, for example. Myelin, a chemical made from fat, surrounds neuronal axons and makes neural transmission effective. We have to have fat in our bodies for normal function, and fat needs to be in our diet to replace the fats used and degraded every minute of every day.

… At the gross level, conglomerations of fat-containing cells called adipocytes form padding and shock-absorbing structures around the heart and other visceral organs. In its subcutaneous form, adipose tissue (an accumulation of adipocytes) provides a long-term energy source, a layer of insulation from minor environmental temperature challenges, and protection against physical insult. The fat under our skin has purpose and function. We need it.

… Men tend to accumulate more abdominal visceral fat than women, and women tend to accumulate more lower-body subcutaneous fat than men. No matter the location, fat deposits are not smooth sheets of tissue. They are opportunistic in where they develop, conforming themselves to any irregular nook or cranny available.

The consensus amongst the wider population appears to be that we should fear fat, but as we’ve seen above, fat is in fact essential. To be clear, the fat in our diet needs to be in its natural forms and not the processed nonsense that abounds today.

To assume that we accumulate excess body fat by consuming it is to disregard the complexity of the human body and all the crucial roles it plays in our body. What drives excess fat storage is a complex web of processes, and is certainly not as straightforward as public health authorities would have us believe.

Challenges losing abdominal fat

One of the key challenges to consider when it comes to losing abdominal fat is age:

“When women go through menopause and men experience ‘andropause’, sex hormones change in ways that can lead to more belly fat.

While menopause refers to a drastic decrease in women’s [o]estrogen levels, andropause refers to a more gradual reduction in testosterone for men.

“Studies show that women experience an increase in abdominal and visceral fat as they transition into menopause.

“This is likely related to the hormonal changes and the resulting decrease in energy expenditure and fat burning.

… Studies also suggest that men accumulate proportionally greater amounts of abdominal or visceral fat with decreasing testosterone levels.

… Hormonal changes that come with age can predispose both women and men to excess accumulation of abdominal fat.

Although ageing presents a number of challenges, again, it’s beyond our control, so this is purely for awareness purposes.

Reducing our overall body fat percentage, which we can influence predominantly through our diet, will naturally result in a decrease in the areas where excess body fat is being stored. Our bodies are extremely complex and smart; therefore, we needn’t worry about how the fat in our body will be distributed. The body is always seeking homeostasis, a self-regulating process by which an organism tends to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival, so the body will distribute fat in a way that promotes this process. Our focus, therefore, should simply be to provide the body with enough of the essential fats it requires.

Thank you for reading this post

In part one of this post, we looked at how fat is distributed and why it matters, the functions of fat, and the challenges losing abdominal fat. We’ve established that the location/s of excess fat storage is largely driven by genetics and that regardless of gender, nobody is immune to storing excess abdominal fat. We saw that fat is essential and plays a crucial role in many bodily functions. We’ve also seen the many challenges that the ageing process presents, but that our efforts should be focused on reducing our overall body fat percentage, which in turn should translate into a reduction in the areas where excess body fat is being stored.

In part two we’re going to look at whether cortisol influences abdominal fat, how to measure body fat and the potential limitations thereof, and we’ll address a few common misconceptions about how to lose abdominal fat. Some of the information contained in part two is truly shocking, you don’t want to miss it!

We truly hope that you found part one valuable. If you have any questions or if you’d like to work with one of our experienced personal trainers, please feel free to contact us

References

‘Fat, Part 1: Anatomical Distribution’, CrossFit, 17 July 2020. Available at: https://www.crossfit.com/essentials/fat-part-1-gross-anatomy

Scher, B. (2021) ‘How to lose belly fat’, Diet Doctor, 17 February. Available at: https://www.dietdoctor.com/how-to-lose-weight/belly-fat

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