Subcutaneous vs Visceral Fat
By Stephen Greensted
FAT is a word we use and hear all of the time but not many of us really know anything about it. We all think we know that the general rule with fat is first on, last off when what we should really be asking ourselves is…
Do we know enough about the term 'fat' that we so freely use and does this rule still apply to visceral fats, or do they follow a different sequence?
In humans, adipose tissue is located beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat), around internal organs (visceral fat), in bone marrow (yellow bone marrow) and in breast tissue. Adipose tissue is found in specific locations, which are referred to as adipose depots. Fat can have a number of different uses including providing organs with insulation from heat and cold and around organs, it provides protective padding. However, its main function is to be a reserve of lipids, which can be burned to meet the energy needs of the body. Adipose depots in different parts of the body have different biochemical profiles. Under normal conditions, it provides feedback for hunger and diet to the brain.
Without making things too complicated, I would like to focus entirely on Subcutaneous (Sub Q) and Visceral Fats so before we begin i will briefly explain the difference between the two.
Visceral: Referring to the viscera, the internal organs of the body, specifically those within the chest (as the heart or lungs) or abdomen(as the liver, pancreas or intestines). In short, please think of this as internal fat (around the organs).
In a figurative sense, something "visceral" is felt "deep down." It is a "gut feeling."
Most of the remaining nonvisceral fat is found just below the skin in a region called the hypodermis.This subcutaneous fat is not related to many of the classic obesity-related pathologies, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke, and some evidence even suggests it might be protective. The typically female pattern of body fat distribution around the hips, thighs, and buttocks, is subcutaneous fat, and therefore poses less of a health risk compared to visceral fat. An easy way to describe this is what I like to call visible fat under the skin. For example: Beer bellies, bingo wings and chunky thighs etc.
Now you all have a rough idea about the difference between these types of fat, we can begin with a few important points / questions that are often overlooked by what i like to call the uneducated bodybuilder...
Does the body prefer to utilize subcutaneous fats (Sub Q) before visceral fat, or does it not differentiate? And as bodybuilders, when gaining fat let's say on a bulk, at what point will you begin to load on more of the unhealthy visceral fats? Or is that something that occurs more when you reach obesity?
Of course genetics play a HUGE part in this. An individual with ectomorphic genetics will often eat anything they like whenever they like and still struggle to gain any subcutaneous fat (we hate these people lol) but someone with a more endomorphic somatotype rating such as myself will have to be careful what we put into our mouths because we seem to gain this subcutaneous fat very easily. However, the part we often overlook (because its not visible) is how much fat is our body storing as Visceral fat inside and around the organs!?
From my experience, Sub Q fats are typically the first to come off. Visceral fats seem to be higher in those who smoke and drink regularly (and generally abuse their health), there has been some links to higher heart disease problems with more visceral fat. Visceral fat also has been related to higher stress (cortisol) levels which can again be linked into heart disease. Please DO NOT ignore visceral fats because these are the fats that will kill you. Just because you look healthy on the outside does not necessarily mean that you are.
However, ignorance aside, often Visceral Adipose Tissue (VAT) comes off very quickly in response to caloric defecit but we should still be mindful that visceral fat is what I consider to be hidden fat because its not visible compared to that of a huge beer belly etc.
As a general rule when bulking, if you get fat enough to accumulate VAT (Visceral Adipose Tissue aka Visceral Fat) that is a sign that you need to stop bulking. Again this will vary from individual to individual but i recommend when on a bodybuilding diet to gain mass you should ideally have these internal fat levels checked on a quarterly basis (bi monthly if possibly). This will help to avoid serious health problems such as heart disease in the future. Afterall, what use is being MASSIVE when you only live to the age of 35!!!
Please do not become too obsessed with losing this though as a certain amount of internal fat is required to protect the organs.
I guess by now you are wondering which type of fat is easiest to lose and which is the most dangerous to have in excess? Unfortunately, it really depends on gender and genetics which is easiest to lose. For example, men accumulate visceral fat more easily than women. Notice how when men get fat they can often have hard, round pot bellies or pudgy midsections and still have skinny legs and arms? This may appear to look like subcutaneous fat but upon further inspection the fat feels rock hard because it is actually surrounding the organs inside and is being stored as large amounts of visceral fats. This is quite frankly a serious health issue waiting to happen. However, when women tend to get fat they often develop heavier saddle bags and carry extra (subcutaneous) fat around the hips and thighs which is far less dangerous but often viewed as unhealthy by todays image conscious society.
Generally speaking, the person with the apple shaped fat distribution (usually the man) can lose weight much more quickly. Although if they don't they have a much higher risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke because most of the fat they have stored is visceral.
The person who carries more fat on their butt and thighs is likely to have a much harder time losing it but they can be almost as healthy (cardiovascularly speaking) as someone who is not overweight at all. This sounds hard to believe but is true. Just to back up my point... we all have a friend who has terrible genetics, follows a similar diet to us, is just a fit (again cardiovascularly speaking) but has a fat saggy belly flabby arms and legs. Believe it or not this person is probably just as healthy as us and may have similar amounts of visceral fats but just carries much more subcutaneous fats which makes them look like a slob.
I would therefore disagree and say that typically (though there are always exceptions) subcutaneous fat is harder to lose simply because it's harder to get those fatty deposits back into the bloodstream. Losing visceral Fat tends to raise cholesterol levels as it is metabolized in the liver. This is why people with high levels of visceral fats who are trying to lose weight often suffer with high cholesterol. This is because VAT raises cholesterol levels as it is in constant circulation flowing freely within the bloodstream. Makes sense now doesnt it! In direct comparison, SAT (Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue aka Sub Q Fat) tends to be used as an energy source and will there place the individual at less risk whilst trying to reduce SAT levels.
So, now we know about 2 of the different types of fat. How can we ensure our bodies do not store too much of either...? Im afraid the only answer i can give you is CORRECT NUTRITION and REGULAR EXERCISE! There is NO miracle cure or easy way. Afterall, if it was easy, everyone would be slim!
One final point before we finish. Please do not use calipers and fat measuring machines. Use the mirror from day to day (to assess Sub Q Fat) and speak with your General Practitioner to arrange the correct and appropriate tests to measure Visceral Fat. I live by the saying that 'The mirror never lies for how we look but the doctor knows best for how long we live'. These fancy machines and scales you see in gyms and health clubs all over the country are a 'rough guide' and nothing more. Ignore your weight and Body Mass Index because we as individuals are all so different. As long as you lead a healthy lifestyle, rest enough, get checked by the doctor regularly and have a good diet you will be as healthy as you can be.
Stephen 'Guns' Greensted
Bodybuilding Warehouse - Sponsored Athlete