Visceral fat, also known as organ fat or intra-abdominal fat, is stored deep within the abdominal cavity around the vital organs. It forms part of the body’s central fat deposit located in close proximity to the liver, stomach and intestines.

Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, lies just beneath the skin. It’s the layer of fat that can be pinched or measured with calipers. Subcutaneous fat gives shape and fullness to various areas of the body like the hips, thighs, upper arms and buttocks.

While both visceral and subcutaneous fat serve important biological roles, visceral fat is now understood to be much more metabolically active and linked to higher disease risk than its subcutaneous counterpart. Excess accumulation of fat within the abdominal cavity versus just under the skin can have differing health consequences.

In this article, we will explore the main ways that visceral fat differs from subcutaneous fat in terms of location, appearance, functionality within the body, influencing factors, and associations with chronic disease and mortality risk. Understanding the distinctions between these two fat deposits can provide valuable health insights for weight management and prevention of obesity-related complications.

What is Visceral Fat?

Location (around organs in the abdominal cavity)

Visceral fat accumulates in the peritoneal cavity, nested between the muscles of the abdominal wall and internal organs. It forms a protective layer around the liver, stomach, intestines and other intra-abdominal organs. Visceral fat is also known as intra-abdominal fat for this reason. Some visceral fat also develops in the chest cavity around the lungs and heart.

Associated health risks (heart disease, diabetes, cancer)

High levels of visceral fat are linked to elevated disease risk, especially cardiovascular disease. This is due to visceral fat being more metabolically active than other fat stores. It releases larger amounts of pro-inflammatory molecules and hormones disruptive to metabolic health. Conditions related to excess visceral fat buildup include heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, high blood pressure, high triglycerides and certain cancers.

Factors that increase risk (age, genetics, diet, lack of exercise)

Key contributors to visceral fat gain are aging past 40-50 years, male sex, genetic factors, excess calorie intake, lack of physical activity, excess alcohol consumption and long-term stress exposure. A diet high in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and refined carbs promotes visceral fat deposition over time versus plant-based whole foods. Adhering to a largely sedentary lifestyle without regular exercise also predisposes to abdominal fat accumulation.

What is Subcutaneous Fat?

Location (underneath the skin)

In contrast to visceral fat, subcutaneous fat is situated externally, sandwiched between the skin and underlying muscles and fascia. It forms the soft tissue layer directly below the cutaneous membrane over much of the body. Subcutaneous fat depots include fat on the buttocks, thighs, upper arms, breasts, hips and abdomen visible as soft curves or padding.

Primary function (provides cushioning and insulation)

Unlike visceral fat which serves protective functions, subcutaneous fat acts mechanically as a cushioning barrier and thermally as an insulator. It pads and insulates skeletal muscles, tendons and internal structures from external impacts or temperature changes. Subcutaneous fat also gives contours and shapes to the body figure.

Less linked to health issues than visceral fat

While excess subcutaneous fat can still impair mobility and flexibility, it does not demonstrate as strong an association with metabolic syndrome components or mortality compared to visceral fat levels. Moderate amounts of subcutaneous fat may even offer a degree of insulation against winter illnesses. Overall, subcutaneous fat appears less detrimental metabolically when present in isolation versus accompanying high visceral fat.

Differences in Appearance Between Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat:

Visceral fat not noticeable by looking in a mirror

Unlike subcutaneous fat deposits, visceral fat lies deeper within the abdominal cavity and is not outwardly discernible. A person cannot physically see or judge their level of visceral adiposity simply by glancing at their reflection. Visceral fat can only be estimated through specialized scans and tests not normally done for aesthetic reasons.

Subcutaneous fat gives people their outer contours and look of their figure

On the other hand, the distribution pattern and volume of subcutaneous fat stored determines an individual’s observable bodily contours and shapes to a large degree. Subcutaneous fat padding is what gives curves to a person’s hips, breasts, legs, backside and middle while maintaining softness over bony areas. It largely dictates a person’s appearance as slender, average, heavy-set or obese when clothed based on the degree of fullness and convexity over their frame from a front, side or back angle perspective. By looking in a mirror, one gains insight into their subcutaneous fat deposition across different regions. However, its detailed quantification usually requires calipers or scans beyond casual inspection alone.

Differences in Metabolic Activity

Visceral fat more active endocrinologically

Visceral fat is much more metabolically and endocrinologically active compared to other fat stores. It secretes higher amounts of pro-inflammatory molecules like TNF-alpha, IL-6 and CRP. It also releases fatty acids and adipokines that interfere with insulin signaling and glucose metabolism. This makes visceral fat a key driver of chronic low-grade systemic inflammation linked to many diseases.

Linked to higher inflammation and health marker changes

Due to its endocrine functionality, visceral fat is more strongly associated with negative changes in metabolic markers. Excess visceral fat correlates with increased triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin resistance – all risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. It also influences appetite and energy homeostasis.

Subcutaneous fat less metabolically active

In contrast, subcutaneous fat is relatively less biologically active and does not secrete inflammatory proteins to the same degree as visceral fat deposits. It appears to play a smaller role in elevating disease risk factors through metabolic pathways compared to deep abdominal fat stores.

Risk Factors for Each Type

Things that specifically increase visceral fat levels:

  • Older age (particularly over 50-60 years)
  • Male sex
  • Genetic factors
  • Sedentary lifestyle with low physical activity
  • Poor diet quality (excess red meat, sugar, refined carbs, unhealthy fats)
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Long-term stress exposure
  • Certain medications like glucocorticoids

Things that specifically increase subcutaneous fat levels:

  • Younger age (under 30 years)
  • Female sex (due to childbearing potential)
  • Genetic predisposition
  • High total calorie intake regardless of nutrition quality
  • Pregnancy (temporary gain to nourish fetus)
  • Weight cycling (repeated loss and regain cycles)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Cushing’s syndrome (chronic stress hormone excess)
  • Certain medications like antipsychotics and antidepressants

While some risk factors like diet, physical inactivity and genetics impact both fat types, there are also characteristic elements that preferentially govern visceral versus subcutaneous fat accumulation over time. Understanding these nuances aids targeted lifestyle modification.

Health Impact Variations

Stronger association of visceral fat with chronic disease

Numerous studies show that excess visceral fat, even without overall obesity, carries the greatest risk factor impact. It correlates more closely with the development of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease and certain cancers. Excess visceral fat may contribute to up to 80% of disease risk attributed to overall adiposity.

Subcutaneous fat less detrimental to health independently

Research has found subcutaneous fat to demonstrate either neutral or a less pronounced detrimental relationship with health outcomes on its own. Moderate stores may even buffer against winter illnesses due to insulation. Most health consequences from high total body fat levels seem driven primarily by visceral fat component increases rather than subcutaneous fat deposition alone. Some data suggests that for a given body mass index, more subcutaneous versus less visceral fat pattern confers lesser disease risk.

Distinct fat distribution patterns matter greatly for health in addition to total weight or body mass index. Excess deep abdominal visceral fat carries much more serious implications than an equivalent amount stored subcutaneously, according to medical literature.

To Conclude and Summary

In conclusion, this article has highlighted important ways that visceral and subcutaneous fat deviate from one another in terms of where they accumulate in the body, their appearance qualities, functional roles, influencing factors and health impact potentials.

Visceral fat surrounds internal organs in the abdominal cavity and pericardial regions, performing endocrine functions. However, it is not outwardly visible and has a much stronger association with chronic diseases due to its higher metabolic activity and secretion of inflammatory proteins. Age, sex, diet, lifestyle and genetic traits influence visceral fat accrual more so than subcutaneous stores.

Subcutaneous fat, on the other hand, resides as a protective cushion directly beneath the skin across various regions. It dictates a person’s observable contours and figure shape. While also serving insulation purposes, subcutaneous fat exhibits milder metabolic effects and a weaker link to health conditions when present alone without excess deep abdominal fat. Factors like total caloric surplus drive its accrual more uniformly.

It is paramount to consider fat distribution patterns beyond just weight or BMI when assessing disease risk. Visceral fat warrants particular attention and management through lifestyle modification aimed at reducing inflammation and associated chronic health burdens.


  1. How much belly fat is too much?
    Having too much visceral fat, or a waist circumference of over 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women, poses health risks.
  2. How can I lose visceral fat?
    Reducing excess visceral fat requires losing overall body weight through a healthy, calorie-controlled diet and regular cardiovascular and strength exercise, which targets the abdominal area.
  3. What are the health risks of too much visceral fat?
    Carrying too much visceral fat raises the risk of conditions like insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and heart disease due to its effects on metabolic and inflammatory pathways.
  4. What’s the difference between visceral and subcutaneous fat?
    Visceral fat lies deep within the abdominal cavity around internal organs, while subcutaneous fat rests beneath the skin. Visceral fat poses greater health risks than subcutaneous fat.
  5. How can I reduce my body fat percentage?
    Maintaining a healthy diet focused on lean protein, fruits/veggies, and whole grains while engaging in cardiovascular and strength training exercise several times a week can help lower body fat levels into the healthy range of 25% or less for males and 35% less for females.

References and Sources

The Mayo Clinic provides reliable information on visceral fat and its health impacts from top medical experts and researchers.

EJournal of Endocrinology described how to get rid of visceral fat around the abdomen.

Harvard Health discusses the dangers of excess abdominal fat and strategies for reducing visceral pudge based on rigorous studies.

The World Obesity Federation is a leading authority on obesity research and prevention. Their site outlines ways to measure and address visceral adiposity.