Jiggly thighs and flabby arms might irk you, but it’s the hidden fat around your organs that possibly poses the biggest health risk.
Being fat is bad for your health: Excessive body fat increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and certain cancers. And just because you don’t look fat doesn’t mean you’re not at risk — thin people can still have high levels of visceral fat, as well as fatty organs. Since obesity rates began to skyrocket in the 1980s, medical professionals have seen an increase in damaging fatty organs that can exacerbate all these risks and more.
But what does visceral fat or having fatty organs really mean?
“Having fatty organs can mean two things,” says Marianne Benn, MD, PhD, DMSc, a clinical physician in the department of clinical biochemistry at Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark. “The first is that you have fat in your liver, which is due to either impaired triglyceride/cholesterol metabolism or, much more common, due to an excessive intake of fat — a bit like the force-fed Strasbourg geese bred for foie gras.”
It can also refer to having fat around the organs, which means the fat is primarily on the outside of organs such as the heart, liver, and spleen and mostly around and between the intestines. This is due to excess energy intake — eating more calories than the body uses — and is by far the most common cause of “internal obesity,” according to Dr. Benn. It’s important to note that even people who appear to be thin on the outside can have this type of dangerous fat.
What Excess Fat Does
When this happens, the fat will first settle inside the abdominal cavity and on the usual gender-specific places, such as a woman’s hips and bottom. If more energy is suddenly needed, the fat on the inside can be easily called upon and put into action. However, excess fat is dangerous, regardless of its location.
“To have fat on the inside is at least as dangerous as having it on the outside and has the same side effects as normal obesity, like hypertension, hypertriglyceridemia, insulin resistance, and diabetes,” Benn says. “Fat on the inside has been suggested to be more dangerous than fat on the outside, although the evidence for this is not firm. Fat on the inside has been associated with higher risk of diabetes compared to fat on the outside, but it is not known if diabetes causes an altered fat distribution or if this specific fat distribution may cause diabetes in and of itself.”
How Fat Affects Your Organs
From time to time, you may hear about the effects of fat on organs you didn’t even know could be considered fatty. This is because in recent years, more study has been devoted to analyzing internal fat. Here’s what you need to know:
- The liver. Good liver health is crucial for a variety of reasons, as the liver has a number of purposes. It converts food to energy and helps clear the blood of poisons and alcohol, and its bile aids in digestion. When liver health is bad, there can be serious consequences.“A fatty liver is usually less effective and also produces less favorable blood lipids/cholesterol,” says Fredrik H. Nystrom, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of medical and health sciences at Linkoping University in Sweden. “It can also progress to liver failure. Fat between muscle fibers is also linked with relatively poor function.” In addition, it has been linked to increased glucose production (diabetes). As a side note, though obviously a fatty liver is bad for liver health as well as overall health, Dr. Nystrom and his colleagues found that moderate alcohol intake does not negatively affect liver fat.
- The ovaries. Women’s ovaries are crucial for reproduction because they produce eggs and also secrete the hormone estrogen. Problems can arise in the ovaries when too much fat is involved. “The study we did showed that if a patient has high free-fatty-acid concentrations in the blood (due to massive breakdown of lipid stores typical in diabetes or obese patients), this is reflected in the ovarian follicle, hampering the development of the oocyte (immature egg cell),” says Jo Leroy, DVM, PhD, of the biomedical, pharmaceutical, and veterinary sciences faculty at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “Furthermore, the embryo originating of this oocyte is bad in quality.” Currently, Dr. Leroy and colleagues are investigating the consequences for pregnancy and fetal growth.
- The heart. Although visceral fat resides in the abdomen, it can actually be hurting the heart. Research done on mice found that inflammation surrounding individual fat cells can contribute toatherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of the heart’s arteries, and can lead to blood clots. The heart, and the arteries in general, can also be harmed by triglycerides. “We hear a lot about watching cholesterol numbers, but it turns out triglycerides, a kind of fat found in the blood, are also significant,” Benn says. More research needs to be done, but triglyceride numbers are not something to ignore. “It is well-known that people with high cholesterol levels are at risk of cardiovascular disease, but high cholesterol levels do not identify all people at risk — you may have a normal cholesterol level but still be at risk,” Benn says. “Triglycerides may be a better measure of the remnant particles.”
- The brain. Much more research needs to be conducted, but scientists have found that excess visceral fat may affect brain health as well. Specifically, it was discovered that people with a larger waist and waist-to-hip ratio along with larger body mass index (BMI) have a lower total brain volume. What this really means and whether there is a correlation between abdominal fat and dementia need further investigation, but for those who carry excess weight around the middle, losing a few (or more) pounds makes sense.
Whether you have obvious or hidden fat, the treatment is the same: Eat a healthful diet and exercise regularly to lose weight. It’s also essential to protect your health by getting regular checkups, Benn says, including cholesterol, triglyceride, and glucose tests and blood pressure monitoring starting at age 45.