Blitz the dangerous body fat stores that you can't see - and attack proof your heart
Our priorities are all out of shape. When we worry about fat, we focus on the stuff you can pinch between your fingers, the stuff that droops over waistbands and sabotages the silhouette.
But something far more sinister is going on beneath the slightly wobbly surface. When it comes to fat, what you see is
not necessarily what you’ve got.
Get your fats right
Adipose tissue – plain old fat to you and me – comes in a variety of forms. The stuff just beneath your skin is called subcutaneous fat. It’s not particularly pretty but nor is it particularly harmful, so long as you don’t carry it in excess.
Visceral fat, however, is something else entirely. “This builds up deep in your abdomen from the top of the liver down. It surrounds your organs, so your liver, pancreas and kidneys are cushioned and floating in a mass of fat,” says Professor Jimmy Bell, a researcher at Imperial College in London who uses MRI technology to map fat in the body.
In recent years, scientists have confirmed that as far as your health is concerned it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The hidden fat, the tiny globules seeping into your organs and flowing through your bloodstream, is what increases a person’s risk of type II diabetes, heart attacks and other chronic health conditions.
A recent study published in the journal Hypertension Research is one of many to have established a link between visceral abdominal fat and coronary heart disease.
The usual suspects are to blame – too much pastry and not enough panting. Genetics plays a role as always, but research has linked visceral fat with sedentary living and poor diets filled with empty carbs, plus saturated and hydrogenated fats. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition also found that high consumption of fructose, found most commonly in fizzy drinks, led to higher levels of the culprit.
“Weight has become too much of the story,” Bell says. “What everybody should really try to reduce is the fat in the wrong places. That’s the stuff within the organs and in the visceral area.”
And he really does mean everybody. Visceral fat is an equal opportunities sort of killer: it affects both sexes and you don’t have to be morbidly obese to carry it. In fact, researchers like Bell have come up with a classification for people who mistakenly think they’re lean and healthy just because they don’t store much subcutaneous fat beneath the skin. They’re known as TOFIs (thin outside, fat inside).
A man who looks trim but doesn’t exercise and regularly eats badly is likely to carry more visceral fat than is healthy. Compare that with a Japanese sumo wrestler who shovels thousands of calories into his body every day but stays active for his sport. The wrestler is more likely to store his fat near the surface and therefore enjoy better ‘metabolic health’ than the skinny ‘fat’ man who wrongly assumes that just because he can’t see it, it isn’t there.
Why is visceral fat so dangerous? “Fat is an organ,” says Alan White, professor of men’s health at Leeds Metropolitan University. “It’s metabolically active – it’s sends signals and toxic chemicals to the rest of the body that increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease.”
Scientists don’t fully understand all of the mechanisms but one thing we do know is that when you accumulate visceral fat it oozes into some of your internal organs, including the heart. It also gets into your liver, where the effects are particularly destructive. “It sends inflammatory signals around the body and also continues to produce glucose even when the body has enough,” says Bell. That increases your risk of type II diabetes.
Other signals seem to go to the brain. “It makes people more lethargic and less likely to exercise. That, of course, causes even more problems so it becomes a vicious circle.”
From your liver, the fat also seeps into your blood in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides. These tiny parcels of fat slowly build up, gradually turning your bloodstream into a landfill for microscopic blubber. The process is called atherosclerosis.
As more and more fat is deposited on the walls of your arteries it forms a hard substance called plaque, which clogs up the system.
Your heart must work harder to pump the blood through ever-narrowing corridors. In the worst cases, it causes blood clots and increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
In evolutionary terms, the body was not designed for this. “The body was not created to have too many calories put in,” Bell says. “Evolution did not ‘predict’ this so it has no defence for it.” Which means one thing: it’s down to you to fix it.
On the next page: Discover the best tweaks to your diet and workouts to reduce visceral fat.