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What is visceral fat?

31st July 19 - 8 minute read

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

Our expert:

James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport. James played Premiership Rugby for Gloucester, as well as lining up for London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and England Saxons. He has a degree and masters in biochemistry from the University of Bath and has completed the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition. He is currently working towards a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University.

What’s in this article…

  • What is visceral fat?
  • How much visceral fat is normal?
  • How can I measure visceral fat levels?
  • Burning and losing visceral fat

When your body consumes more calories than it burns, the rest is stored as fats. As part of a good diet, we should look to consume less fat in general.

But there’s one type of fat that may be more elusive than others - visceral fat.

We’ve created this guide to visceral fat, delving into the science and pulling it all into one, handy place. Take control of your body’s visceral fat levels and feel your best.

At a glance

  • Visceral fat builds up around your organs
  • High levels are linked to numerous health conditions
  • Measuring your waist can indicate healthy or unhealthy levels
  • Diet and exercise can reduce visceral fat
  • Stress can also be a contributing factor

Visceral fat

Visceral fat collects around your abdominal organs like stomach, liver and kidneys. Because it’s stored around these organs - and not under the surface of your skin like subcutaneous fat - it’s hard to know exactly how much visceral fat you have.

“The concern is that it can be surrounding your organs, which obviously has an impact on health, but you may not look overweight,” explains sports nutritionist, James Hudson.

Potential health problems can appear as visceral fat is more ‘active’ than other types of fat, actively releasing chemicals and hormones.¹ If your levels are unhealthily high, these substances can start to impact the flow of your bodily functions. For this reason, high levels of visceral fat have been linked to health conditions including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Stroke
  • Cancer²

Need to know: Visceral fat is stored around your vital organs. High levels of visceral fat can increase the risk of a number of health conditions.

 

H2: How much visceral fat is normal?

A healthy level of visceral fat is around 10% of your total body fat, according to research by Harvard University³. That leads us onto another question - how much body fat is healthy?

The recommended levels are:

  • Women: 15 – 31%
  • Men: 8 – 28%

Working from these figures, we can work out that healthy levels of visceral fat are:

  • Women: 1.5 – 3.1%
  • Men: 0.8 – 2.8%

These guidelines run the gamut from professional athletes to everyday fitness warriors and the casually health-conscious.

Need to know: Healthy amounts of visceral fat are around 10% of your overall body fat levels.  

 

How can I measure visceral fat levels?

We might not be able to see visceral fat, but we do know where it collects. Here are some ways to determine if your levels are healthy, or if they need some attention.

Measure your waist

Dig out your tape measure and wrap it around your waist, starting from your belly button. Do it in the morning when your fluid retention rates are lower – and refrain from pulling the tape measure tight to lose an extra half-inch.

The NHS says healthy waist measurements are:

  • Women: 80cm or less
  • Men: 94cm or less

As with all guidelines, it’s important to note these are averages. They’re not going to work for everybody – like some rugby players, for example. But you can also tell a lot from your proportions, even if the measurements don’t quite fit.

“If your waist is large in comparison to the rest of your body, it’s a sign that you might be accumulating visceral fat,” says sports nutritionist, James.

Work out your hip-to-waist ratio

This is another quick and easy way to get an idea of your visceral fat levels:

  1. Measure your waist as above
  2. Measure your hips at the widest point
  3. Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement

Results-wise, this is what you’re looking for:

  • Women: 8 or less
  • Men: 1 or less

Again, the levels which are healthy for you might be slightly different to these guidelines. But if your results are higher than recommended, it’s good impetus to make some healthy changes to your daily routine.

 

Speak to the professionals

To nail down the numbers once and for all, book yourself in for a professional appointment – either at the doctors, your gym or a body fat clinic.

CT and MRI scans are the most accurate way to measure visceral fat, but there are also high-tech machines coming onto the scene that can give you a clear idea of your ratios.
 

Need to know: You can work out your visceral fat levels at home by measuring your waistline or working out your hip-to-waist ratio. For a more accurate picture, talk to your doctor.

 

Burning and losing visceral fat

If your waist is wider than it should be, the good news is there are plenty of ways to get rid of visceral fat and bring those levels down. But fad diets and quick fixes are not among them.

“There’s no quick way to get lose fat in a particular part of your body, no matter what these articles online like ‘reduce your belly fat in 7 days’ or ‘get a six-pack overnight’ say,” explains sports nutritionist, James.

“It’s just a case of losing weight steadily and being more active.”

Kickstart your health goals with these tips on how to burn visceral fat.


Eat healthily  

Reducing your fat intake is a sure-fire way to start bringing those levels down. Here are some changes you could make to your daily eating habits:

  • More protein - particularly poultry, fish, eggs and beans. Red meat, although high in protein, is linked to more potential health risks.
  • Fewer carbohydrates – especially refined carbs like white flour, rice and bread. Try to reduce your overall carb intake, and switch to brown or wholemeal when you do eat them. Find inspiration with these delicious low-carb meal ideas.
  • Less sugar – excess sugar is stored as visceral fat, so processed foods high in sugar are a red flag.
  • Less alcohol – it’s high in sugar, so top of the list when making sustainable changes to your diet.  

Increasing the proportion of protein in your diet can kickstart a domino effect, helping other cutbacks fall into place more naturally.

“Of all the macronutrients – carbohydrate, fat and protein – protein is the most satiating, so it fills you up and makes you feel satisfied,” says James. 

“As a population, we’re generally really bad at eating protein for breakfast. Most of us will grab a slice of toast or a bowl of cereal.”

This is an easy place to make a positive change. Set your morning alarm 10 minutes earlier so you can enjoy a nutritious plate of eggs, or a bowl of high protein yogurt topped with frozen berries.

Get active

Exercising for 30 minutes per day can help you maintain healthy visceral fat levels. The most important thing is finding activities that you enjoy - whether it’s jogging, cycling or exercise classes.

There are some types of exercise that are particularly effective for burning fat, like:

  • Aerobics. A keep fit video or gym class will show you the moves that can help burn fat.
  • Cardio. Hit the treadmill or rowing machine, or take up jogging as a way to build up your cardio health.
  • Kettlebell. Simple exercise using a kettlebell can have real fat-burning benefits.

Strike a balance between your favourite workouts and these recommended ones for an optimal fat-burning routine.

Make sure you incorporate a mixture of low- and high-intensity activities to ensure your body has some down time for recovery. It’s all about that buzzword – sustainability.

Take care of your mental health

Stress can cause your body to store more visceral fat – and cortisol is to blame. This chemical makes your body hang onto fats and is released in greater quantities when you’re going through a stressful time.

If you’re feeling the pressure at work or have other things on your mind, focus some time on maintaining your mental health and wellbeing. You could try:

  • Calming exercises like yoga or meditation
  • Taking a bath at the end of the day
  • Reading before you go to sleep, and avoid technology

Need to know: Regular exercise, healthy eating and doing calming exercises when you’re feeling stressed can help to burn and lose visceral fat.

In summary

Making sustainable changes to your lifestyle and keeping track of your waist measurements should help you start to see those numbers coming down to healthy levels.

Visceral fat might be hard to see - but it’s also the first type to go when you make healthy changes.¹⁰

Tap into your inner strength and make some positive swaps today. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel the results.



[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/37gW2wB5VqBgXY7ghsFY3FJ/how-can-i-get-rid-of-belly-fat

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/why-is-my-waist-size-important/

[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/taking-aim-at-belly-fat

[4] https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/health/female-health/a708160/body-fat-percentage-women/

[5] https://www.menshealth.com/uk/building-muscle/a759234/what-body-fat-percentage-should-i-be-to-see-abs/

[6] https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/why-is-my-waist-size-important/

[7] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/whats-the-beef-with-red-meat

[8] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320929.php

[9] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320929.php

[10] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-36763102

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

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