With the warm weather approaching, all of us will enjoy more time outside. But when you get thirsty, think twice before reaching for a sugar-sweetened beverage. Drinking sugary drinks has been linked to gaining visceral fat, a dangerous type of body fat linked to serious health risks.
There are two types of fat in our bodies: subcutaneous and visceral, and while each carries its own risks, the more dangerous kind is visceral fat. Visceral fat lies deep in the abdomen, surrounding internal organs like the liver, pancreas and intestines. Subcutaneous fat is located just under the skin and is often noticeable on the hips, thighs and stomach. It is the type of fat where you can ‘pinch an inch,’ meaning it is easy to see and grab.
The Negative Effects of Visceral Fat
Recent research has suggested that sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweet teas, and sports drinks, are an important factor in adding visceral fat. A January 2016 study in the journal Circulation suggested that the consumption of sugary drinks preferentially drives visceral fat accumulation, adding that to a long list of health-damaging effects of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Compared to subcutaneous fat, visceral fat appears to be a stronger promoter of diabetes and heart disease.
As part of the Framingham Heart Study, men and women were followed for six years to determine any changes in their visceral fat volume. CT scans revealed that there was an increase in visceral fat in all the participants, but it was 27 percent greater in those who drank at least one sugary drink a day. One of the most intriguing facts from this study is that there was no difference in the amount of subcutaneous fat gained between those who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages and those who didn’t, only in the subjects’ visceral fat.1
Since visceral fat is associated with a number of cardiovascular risk factors, including hypertriglyceridemia, insulin resistance, and chronic inflammation, any increased amount of visceral fat could be harmful. Visceral fat is also suspected of increasing small dense LDL particles and reducing HDL cholesterol. This may be partially attributable to the fat’s close proximity to the liver. In addition, visceral fat appears to produce more pro-inflammatory compounds than subcutaneous fat. 2, 3
How to Lose Visceral Fat
To be clear, excess body fat is a problem no matter what type of fat it is or where it is located. Obesity creates chronic inflammation and is a key factor in some of our most common diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and is also a component in many autoimmune illnesses. As fat tissue grows, more pro-inflammatory compounds are produced, increasing the risk of disease.4
Although our bodies’ fat distribution is largely due to genetics, age, and ethnicity, we still have control over how much body fat we gain. As with any body fat, the best way to lose visceral fat is by eating properly and exercising. Any loss of total fat will reduce visceral fat.2, 5
I believe the best way to lose unwanted weight and keep it off is not to ‘go on a diet,’ but to change your eating style. My recommended eating style is designed to help break addictions to sugar and processed foods. My focus is eating nutrient-dense, plant-rich foods that satisfy your appetite and flood your body with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that restore your health. This way of eating reduces your risk of serious diseases that lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancers. By flooding the body with food, rich in immune-suppressing micronutrients – and not simply avoiding sweets and reducing calories – you facilitate your body’s own natural efforts to repair and heal. The Nutritarian style of eating, coupled with exercise, can reduce visceral fat and improve your health.
- Ma J, McKeown NM, Hwang SJ, et al. Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption is Associated With Change of Visceral Adipose Tissue Over 6 Years of Follow-Up. Circulation 2016.
- Tchernof A, Despres JP. Pathophysiology of human visceral obesity: an update. Physiol Rev 2013, 93:359-404.
- Bergman RN, Kim SP, Catalano KJ, et al. Why visceral fat is bad: mechanisms of the metabolic syndrome. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2006, 14 Suppl 1:16S-19S.
- Strohacker K, McFarlin BK. Influence of obesity, physical inactivity, and weight cycling on chronic inflammation. Front Biosci (Elite Ed) 2010, 2:98-104.
- Chaston TB, Dixon JB. Factors associated with percent change in visceral versus subcutaneous abdominal fat during weight loss: findings from a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond) 2008, 32:619-628.