Why is visceral fat dangerous? The 6 reasons visceral fat can be life-threatening

Dr Zoe Williams discusses visceral fat on This Morning

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We all know that being obese or overweight increases your risk of a number of life-threatening conditions – but why is it dangerous to have too much of a specific kind of fat? Express.co.uk chatted to Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy to find out the reason why visceral fat is so dangerous.

Fat is deposited throughout the body at different sites.

We all know about subcutaneous fat, which is the fat under the skin.

However, many of us are unaware of visceral fat – fat that lies in the abdomen and surrounds the major abdominal organs.

You can’t see or grab hold of visceral fat, but it’s important to keep tabs on it because it increases your risk of chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and insulin resistance.

Why is visceral fat dangerous?

Chronic inflammation

Visceral fat is dangerous fat because it is not inactive, according to Dr Lee.

She explained: “It produces cytokines – chemical messenger molecules, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumour necrosis factors alpha (TNF-alpha) that switch on the immune response.

“This results in chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation underpins the development of many of the diseases we see today.

“It can lead to atherosclerosis (which is the major cause of heart disease and stroke), high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and dementia.”

Oxidative stress

With the system on high alert, your cells are highly metabolically active and need to use a lot of oxygen for energy.

Dr Lee expanded: “By-products of metabolism are created called reactive oxygen species (ROS).

“These ROS are dangerous molecules that can damage your DNA and disrupt the normal patterns of cellular repair and cell clearance.

“This process is known as oxidative stress, and oxidative stress underpins the development of many of the chronic diseases we see today.”

Insulin resistance

Having lots of visceral fat is also linked to insulin resistance (IR).

This happens when your cells become relatively insensitive to the hormone insulin.

Dr Lee explained: “As your blood glucose levels rise, your body normally produces insulin which brings these levels down to normal again.

“When you develop insulin resistance, blood glucose levels rise and insulin levels are high.

“The cells in the body, however, are not responding as they should and blood glucose levels remain elevated while your cells are relatively starved of glucose.

“If this is not improved, the next step is full-blown type-2 diabetes.”

Premature death

Increasing amounts of visceral fat increase the risk of premature death.

However, it’s not just down to visceral fat, waist circumference is also linked to raised mortality – meaning subcutaneous fat is also a factor.

A third factor is the amount of fat stored in the liver.


Increased visceral fat increases your risk of many cancers including colon (bowel) cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and cancer of the uterus, kidney and pancreas.

Dr Lee pointed out: “In the well known Nurses Health Study, 44,000 nurses were recruited and followed up.

“After 16 years, those who had a waist size of 35 inches or above had twice the risk of dying compared to those with a normal waist size of under 28 inches.

“Reducing visceral fat can be viewed as a potential treatment to help increase longevity.”

Metabolic syndrome

Too much visceral fat is linked to a diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, Dr Lee said.

This is a disorder of metabolism where a cluster of conditions increase your risk of cardiovascular disease – heart attacks and strokes.

Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed if you have three or more of the following:

  • Visceral obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Raised cholesterol
  • Insulin resistance – your body has become relatively unable to control your blood glucose levels

One in three UK adults aged over 50 currently has metabolic syndrome, but most are unaware of it.

Your GP can check your cholesterol by arranging a blood test called a lipid profile.

Your lipids are abnormal if you have raised triglycerides, a low HDL cholesterol, a raised LDL cholesterol, and a raised total cholesterol/HDL ratio.

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