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Visceral fat, or abdominal fat, is a type of body fat that exists in the abdomen and surrounds the internal organs. Everyone has some, especially those who are sedentary, chronically stressed, or maintain unhealthy diets. A different type of fat — subcutaneous fat — which builds up under the skin, has less of a negative impact on health and is easier to lose than visceral fat. In fact, excessive deposits of visceral fat are associated with many serious health problems including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased blood pressure. Though it is possible to lose, it requires a larger commitment than spot exercises, like sit ups or crunches; a combination of cardiovascular activity and a lean diet is typically required.

Causes of Development

People gain abdominal fat for a variety of reasons, including eating lots of high fat or high sugar foods, and maintaining an inactive lifestyle. Not exercising for long periods of time often leads to a cumulative effect in which people gain more abdominal fat quicker over time, but a little exercise can greatly inhibit its development. Lifestyle factors, like not getting enough sleep or being stressed also increase the chances of developing this type of fat. Some studies show that people who routinely experience discrimination or harassment are prone to develop deposits of this fat.

Some causes are outside of people’s control — aging is a major factor in gaining this type of fat, as people tend to lose muscle mass as they age, leaving them with a higher percentage of body fat in general. This also changes the way the body burns calories, making it easier to gain abdominal fat. Hormonal changes also play a large role, particularly in menopausal women. Some people are also genetically pre-disposed to gaining it, even if they don’t have a lot of subcutaneous fat. In fact, a person may be within a healthy weight range, but still have too much fat around the internal organs.

Effects on Health

Visceral fat is associated with a number of negative effects on health, including increased blood pressure; dementia; cardiovascular disease; hormonal imbalances; and insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. The deposits of fat actually act similarly to an organ, and excrete substances that affect the surrounding organs. It’s thought that abdominal fat may be particularly risky because it’s near the main vein that carries blood into the liver from around the intestines. Some of the substances excreted by the fat, particularly loose fat cells, can get taken into the liver and then influence the levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood. Abdominal fat is also closely associated with increased LDL and decreased HDL cholesterol levels, as well as breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and colorectal cancer.

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