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Learning About Fat Location And "Visceral Fat"


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Hello, I am an occasional forum poster who has a lot to learn about fitness and weight loss, and appreciates the help and information available here.

I'd like to learn more about the different locations of fat in the body, in particular "visceral fat", which I believe is also called intra-abdominal fat. 

Currently, I am 5' 11" (rounding up) and 182-184lb (fluctuates) at 48 y/o.  This is down from 214 lb last year.

My BIA monitor reports 24% body fat.  I realize there is debate over the accuracy of BIA devices, but the controlled studies I've seen indicates they tend to report BF% within a few percentage points of underwater weighing, so I figure I'm likely to be >20% and <28% BF%. So, I figure I'm carrying around, very roughly, 44 lb of fat +/- 8 lb or so. 

If fat is 0.9 gram per cubic centimeter, then 44 lb is about 0.8 cubic feet of fat.  I visualize this as being about the same volume as 5 to 6 one-gallon plastic jugs of milk.  Ouch.

What I'd like to understand it, where is this 44 lb of fat located in my body?  A while ago, I did some pinching and prodding of the obvious fat under my skin, which I think is called "subcutaneous fat".  It didn't seem likely that there's more than 2 gallon jugs' of worth of fat there.   I'm not at my target by a long shot, but even now I don't "look" or "feel" very, very "fat".  So my impression is that most of my body fat must be somewhere that I can't easily pinch, and seems to be the obvious suspect is deep inside my body. amidst the other organs. 

Is that correct, that there is something like 20+ lb of fat (3 gallon jugs) hiding amidst my viscera?   For a typical person, how much of their body fat is visceral, is subcutaneous, and is somewhere else?

Is it true that visceral fat is more dangerous, from a health perspective, than subcutaneous fat?  I've read that, but haven't dug into why it might be.

If much body fat is visceral or otherwise not subcutaneous, how can caliper measurement of body fat be reliable?  I've never had it done, but I assume the calipers only pinch subcutaneous fat.

Finally, is it right that there is no way to focus fat loss on one location or type of fat?  You just have to lose fat and hope that your genetics cooperate?

 

 

 

 

     

23 Replies (last)

Do an internet search for "Measuring Body Fat" and/or "Measuring Body Composition".  Many good articles available

This reference should help too.

http://www.leighpeele.com/body-fat-pictures-a nd-percentages

MEN

Below average 20% and above

Average 15-19%

Lean 10-14%

Very Lean 9%

Competition Shape 3-6%

At 10%, a man will have minimum love handles, crisp delineation around the pecs, and thigh muscles that show crisp separation when they flex. Abdominals will display a nice six pack when flexed.

Under 10%, on a man, is the benchmark that give a man the look of a competitive bodybuilder.

Bodybuilders and fitness models peak for competitions and photo sessions

"where is this 44 lb of fat located in my body?"

All over the place - under your skin, around your organs, lining your nerves, etc.

"Is that correct, that there is something like 20+ lb of fat (3 gallon jugs) hiding amidst my viscera?"

I couldn't tell you without seeing a picture of it.

"Is it true that visceral fat is more dangerous"

Generally, yes.  If you google it, you can learn all the dirty details.

"how can caliper measurement of body fat be reliable?"

It pinches spots that are pretty well correlated to overall body fat.  It works well for most body types (but not all).  It's best to ask a personal trainer measure you, since they know the nuances of doing it correctly. 

"is it right that there is no way to focus fat loss on one location or type of fat?"

Basically, yes. 


"where is this 44 lb of fat located in my body?"

It is kind of hard to imagine at first. Try raising your arm and pinching a huge chunk of "meat" about 4" below your armpit. Lay face down, and pinch above your main gluteus muscle, but below your iliac crest. Your "love handle" on the side is miniscule compared to the larger fat pad that is between there and your kidney (and which somewhat protects your organs from a blow from behind).

"Is that correct, that there is something like 20+ lb of fat (3 gallon jugs) hiding amidst my viscera?"

I vaguely remember that an average person has half of their fat as subcutaneous fat (my memory is pretty bad though). You already have lost 30 pounds. If you are lucky (from a health standpoint), your waistline was shrinking faster than your skinfolds were. The means you were getting rid of the bad stuff first.

"Is it true that visceral fat is more dangerous"

Yes

"how can caliper measurement of body fat be reliable?"

 If your ratio of subcutaneous fat to total body fat is near the average ratio of the people they used to establish the tests, the calipers will be about as good as hydrostatic measurements (which include both types of fat).

"is it right that there is no way to focus fat loss on one location or type of fat?"

There are some controllable things that affect the ratio of subcutaneous fat to intra-abdominal fat that you gain, or lose. Alcohol consumption, diet, stress levels, and other things affect the hormones that affect that ratio. 

I don't know any way to affect the location of where subcutaneous fat comes off, though.

OGR

The link to Leigh's article is great. Actually, his whole site seems really good.

I'm having a hard time squaring the pictures in the article and the associated body fat % levels, photos of myself, and my body fat % as reported by the monitor, but I guess it is not an exact science. I found a medical clinic locally that offers quite affordable hydrostatic measurement, so I may try that. It may be that how one looks in the mirror is the best gauge, but I'm curious about the underwater process.

You know, I just found a study that measured visceral vs subcutaneous fat in about 100 post-menopausal women. If I am reading this right, about 1/4 of their abdominal fat was visceral and 3/4 was subcutaneous. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12601630 /

Another article indicates that the ratio of visceral to subcutaneous fat was lower in pre-menopausal women than in post-menopausal women. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/1323546/ ?i=5&from=/11474488/related

This is an article about the relationship between visceral fat and various diseases, and some possible mechanisms. It doesn't say anything about the relative percentage of visceral vs subcutaneous fat, but is quite interesting anyway. http://www.ohamdy.com/metabolic%20obesity.pdf

This article talks about the effect of exercise on visceral fat, in the absence of dieting. http://main.uab.edu/Sites/MediaRelations/arti cles/70473/

I don't have access to the full text of these studies, as they are mostly available only to subscribers. It appears that the researchers are measuring both types of fat, but the relative amounts of each isn't described in the abstracts.

The reason I am quite interested in this is that, if my body fat percentage is indeed 24%, I suspect I am carrying a lot of visceral fat, and that looks to be quite bad stuff. I'm trying to figure this out, to set some goals/targets.







Original Post by john_liu:

It may be that how one looks in the mirror is the best gauge, but I'm curious about the underwater process.

Actually that is one of the worst ways. Even if you could reliably predict fat by looking at bodies, people aren't very objective when looking at themselves. If you want a more accurate measurement use calipers, or do the hydrostatic weighing.

24% is not horrible, but it's not great. It would probably be good for your long term health to lower it.

 

Turns out that a local wellness clinic, hospital-affiliated, does hydrostatic body fat testing, about $35.  I'm also looking for a place that does (affordable) DXA testing - the local academic/teaching hospital has DXA and BodPod facilities but it may be for research purposes only.

I think men typically underestimate just how much weight they need to lose.  I originally thought that 180 # was a great goal and now realize that 160 # is the goal.  I haven't weighed 160 # since college, over 20 years ago. <scared>

The hydrostatic body fat testing will be a great tool to use as a reference, just try to have no expectations.  Otherwise you may be very disappointed if the %BF value is a lot higher than you were expecting.

If I can find a similar thing in MA, I am thinking of doing it after I hit an intermediate weight goal as motivation.

 

I own the Slim Guide Caliper, it is cheap and gives consistent measurements. The only downside is it's hard to do yourself, you need someone else to measure you.

I am going to leave out some (a bunch of) details here, but, at your weight, if you are 24% fat, you should be able to sink in a regular swimming pool and take an empty one-liter bottle (plastic) down with you. "Sink" means that you blow all the air out that you can, and relax back into a sitting position with the bottle held in front of your chest. You should be able to sit on the bottom while motionless (in the shallow area, but with yourself and the bottle completely submerged).

If you can do this with a two liter bottle, then you are likely well below 24% fat.

I been using a more precise version of this method for about two years now. It is essentially the same as getting hydrostatically weighed (not available locally here). With a bit of practice, it is very sensitive to changes in fat or muscle mass. It probably isn't worth doing for you, since you can have them measure you for only $35 at the wellness clinic. I'd like to hear more about that, if you have it done.

OGR

Tom, I have also been rethinking my target(s).

Initially I picked 170 lb, which was 44 lbs away from where I started.

Next I started thinking, if I weighed 162 lb at 30 y/o (18 yrs ago), why not target that weight? Have my skeleton and organs gotten much heavier? I have less muscle than then.

After a while it occurred to me that perhaps total weight shouldn't be the target. Why not have a target body fat % and a target muscle mass? The resulting weight will be, whatever it is. But, this requires reliable measurements.

Lately I've been wondering, at a desired body fat %, what will my visceral fat level be? If visceral fat is the really harmful stuff, shouldn't that be the main target? I don't know enough to say, and don't know how I'd measure it either.

Anyway, my target is "evolving" (my favorite euphemism for indecision) but as long as I keep moving in the right direction, I think there's no harm in it.

Solid, thanks for the link to the calipers. I'm going to order one. Not sure who will do the measurements, my wife and daughter think this project has become silly - I may have to bribe my son to help out.

OGR, I'll take bottles to the pool on my next swim. If you have time, what is the more precise method you are using?

Tighten your abdominal muscles, then poke with one finger. You're not trying to see how much fat is on the outside of the muscle, just how far the muscle sticks out even when you've tensed it. The abdominal muscle surrounds the abdominal cavity. If the abdominal cavity is full of fat, the abdominal muscle has to wrap around it, giving you a picture of how much space is taken up inside the abdominal cavity. You've seen pictures of people who are fit, and their tummies are basically flat. That's because they don't have lots of visceral fat taking up room under the abdominal muscle. The visceral fat also fills the chest cavity, reducing the space the lungs would like to use, so that you run out of breath more easily.

I have heard that you can't target a particular area for fat reduction. Your body decides where to loose the weight. If you target a specific area, you can increase the muscle in that area, but it won't affect the fat distribution.

I know someone who had stomach surgery for weight loss. She lost a lot of weight in a hurry, and her face, arms, and legs looked great. But her middle... it was a lot bigger than a spare tire. Her proportions were just bizarre. She lost the weight from the extremities firs. A year later, she still weighed about the same, but the weight had distributed itself around her body, giving her normal proportions.

I've heard the same thing happens after liposuction. People have the fat removed from specific parts of the body, but within a year the body redistributes whatever fat is remaining.

I know your not meant ot be able to spot reduce but I have been doing my exercises with one of those sauna belts around my tummy and a bin liner under my clothes, and sweated loads...  after managing a solid week of exercising early morning before eating (5-6am)  for 60-90 mins I lost several inches off my tummy and around largest part of my tummy.

 

my waist is now 35"  (down from 38 ")  and the widest part of tummy was 48" and is now 40 "   I'm hoping to lose another few inches in time for xmas to fit into some favourite smart trousers for xmas day!

Original Post by john_liu:

Tom, I have also been rethinking my target(s). I agree with Tom, that you don't know ahead of time how much you need to lose, because you don't know how much muscle that you have until you lose so much fat that you can see the muscles.

Initially I picked 170 lb, which was 44 lbs away from where I started. I lost the first 20 as an "experiment" figuring that I might be pretty "buff" at that point. It was a wakeup call to see that I didn't have as much muscle as I thought, and that I needed to lose more fat.

Next I started thinking, if I weighed 162 lb at 30 y/o (18 yrs ago), why not target that weight? Have my skeleton and organs gotten much heavier? I have less muscle than then. That makes sense to me too.

After a while it occurred to me that perhaps total weight shouldn't be the target. Why not have a target body fat % and a target muscle mass? The resulting weight will be, whatever it is. But, this requires reliable measurements. You seem logical, and scientifically inclined. You are right about goals, and the need for good measurements. In a book that I just read (Racing Weight), the author (Fitzgerald) mentions that what you measure is often what actually ends up improving the most. That is because you fine tune your program on the fly to keep the numbers improving (for whatever you are measuring). Much of this is subconscious, putting more effort into things that seem to be working the best for yourself. That has held true for me. I don't do the underwater measuring very often. When I do it more often, I ramp up my efforts on things like squats because they make the most difference in my body density. When I care more about overall weight (like in the month before a race) I get lighter, and run faster, but don't gain a bit of muscle that month and weight the same underwater the next time that I check.

Lately I've been wondering, at a desired body fat %, what will my visceral fat level be? If visceral fat is the really harmful stuff, shouldn't that be the main target? I don't know enough to say, and don't know how I'd measure it either. It is pretty hard to get the actual amounts (unless you get the DEXA scan), but if you use multiple methods and compare the results, you can see where the fat is coming off as you continue to lose it. If you are losing an average amount/ratio of both types of fat, tape measure methods, calipers, and hydrostatic tests will all show about the same changes. I was lucky, and my waist got smaller, and I got heavier underwater faster than my skinfolds got smaller. Once I got down to 19% fat, all the tests agreed and they moved lower in unison (down to 13.5%, where I am now).

Anyway, my target is "evolving" (my favorite euphemism for indecision) but as long as I keep moving in the right direction, I think there's no harm in it. Yes. The improvements are more important than trying to assess the actual total amounts. All of the tests measure changes more accurately than they predict your actual body fat. It is the difference between precision and accuracy. 

Solid, thanks for the link to the calipers. I'm going to order one. Not sure who will do the measurements, my wife and daughter think this project has become silly - I may have to bribe my son to help out. Here is a link to the calculator that my gym uses when they do skinfold measurements. It uses seven sites (I think the info that comes with the slimline calipers is based on a three site measurement, but I am not sure). For some sites (like the stomach), the calipers are facing a direction that makes it hard to read the numbers. Standing next to a mirror solves that problem. The one on your back is impossible without an assistant, and the triceps one really should be a two person deal as well. The other 5 are easy.

OGR, I'll take bottles to the pool on my next swim. If you have time, what is the more precise method you are using? Here are some variations, from simple to more complicated: 1) No bottles. Just see how much air you can hold in your lungs, and still sink. Gradations are:A) you have to blow every bit of air out to sink.  B) just exhale as you normally do, and sink   C) small inhale before you go down, etc...... At 8% fat, you can take a pretty large breath (3 liters worth or more) and still sink like a rock. 2) Using individual, completely empty, bottles as floats to "bracket" yourself. Try a 20 oz bottle, then a 1-liter bottle, then two 1-liter bottles, etc. In your case, you might sink easily with one bottle, but float up quickly with two bottles. 3) Use a bottle that is clear, with graduations on it. You put varying amounts of water in this bottle as a counterweight, so it can be used as an accurate "partial" float. With practice (and knowledge of what your previous test was), you can end up with something like "I sink if there is 300 mls of water in the bottle, but I float if there is only 200 mls." This bottle can be used along with other bottles that are completely empty. On my last two tests, I could sink with three bottles, but only if I put 150 mls of water in the graduated one. My goal is to sink with three totally empty bottles. 4) Acquiring rigid bottles. The readily available ptfe water bottles compress a bit under water, reducing their volume (don't use the two liter ones!). Most people have one rigid nalgene bottle these days (usually with graduations), but not many own three. These methods can be used for easily and accurately tracking changes in your underwater weight. Assuming that it is the same pool, the same bottles, etc. each time. Comparing these changes with your dry land weight change (if any) can be used to see how both muscle and fat levels are changing. I keep the same dry land weight, so getting heavier underwater means that I lost fat and gained muscle. That has become very hard to accomplish below 14% though. Shake all bubbles out of your swimsuit first. Presoak your hair. Practice blowing all your air out quickly. It is unpleasant to stay very long under the water with all your breath out. To reduce that time, wear small swim goggles. You can very quickly see whether you are rising or sinking once submerged with the bottles. To get more accurate (get closer to your actual point of neutral buoyancy), don't let anything touch the bottom (that makes the rest of you float up). Let us know how it goes. I'd like to hear what problems people run into doing this. Maybe I can refine the method some.

 

1) just wondered if you had tried sinking in the pool yet?

2) I remembered something that I should have included in my previous post. People of Asian descent have lighter than average bones, and when they get measured hydrostatically, that gives a lighter underwater weight and body fat %. That means a Caucasian and an Asian, that have the same amount of muscle and fat might have different body densities as measured underwater. I don't know the magnitude of the difference, but don't be surprised if you have to use a smaller bottle, or have to put some water in the one that you are using (to reduce its buoyancy). Effects like this are what makes absolute measurements not as important as changes in your density.

I'm going to bring bottles to the pool on Sunday.  Assuming the lifeguards don't fuss.  As we don't drink hardly any soda, and replaced all our Naglene bottles w/ steel ones, it is taking a while to accumulate even a couple 1L bottles. 

Interesting point on the ethnic variations.  I'd heard blacks have denser bones vs Caucasians, hadn't heard about Asians.

Does lighter bones mean a hydrostatic measurement of body fat will tend to be too high, or too low, assuming no adjustment for the bone density?

 

I haven't had any problems with the lifeguards in outdoor pools. It seems pretty legitimate to have a drinking bottle with you. In smaller lap pools, I get asked questions sometimes by curious people.

I don't drink pop either, and have a lot of steel bottles as well. I did some tests at home, to compensate for the weight of the steel. I found that a 40 oz (1182 mls), made by Klean Kanteen, has almost the same buoyancy effect as a plastic one liter bottle (Aquafina, drinking water). If you don't have a graduated bottle, but want to use some water in the bottle to reduce its buoyancy, don't empty the water out until you get home (weight it using the your food scale).

If you have lighter bones, your body density will be lower, and your unadjusted body fat result will be a higher fat%.

I received the calipers, and wheedled my wife into taking the measurements. Total 47mm = bicep 7mm + tricep 8mm + back 20mm + iliac crest 12mm. 48 y/o.  Implies 23.6% body fat (interpolating).

Pretty close to the Omron BIA scale's reading first thing in the a.m.

I know, an unpracticed caliper measurement vs an uncertain BIA measurement. Still, interesting.

I haven't gone to the pool - life has been crazy.  In the past four days, there's been a 24 hour bug (ugh), a funeral (my sometimes trainer committed suicide - really sad and hard to understand), a friend's 50th birthday party, moving our offices, back-to-school night at the daughter's high school, and a long Monday of work. But I'll get that done this week, 1L bottles and all, and get some more data on body fat measurement on this particular sample of borderline obese homo sapiens.

But, for now, I'm sticking with the assumption that I'm more or less 24% body fat. So if you want to see what a CC example of 24% BF looks like, well, there you go. Alas. Hopefully, there will be examples of 22%, 20%, 18% etc coming down this road over the next several months.

Looking at your pictures I'm a little surprised at those numbers. I would have guessed that you were lower. The sides of your waist are straighter than mine, yet I have a lower body fat.

My numbers are: bicep 4mm + tricep 8mm + back 12mm + waist 13mm = 37mm (20.4% body fat). Our measurements are pretty much the same with the exception of the back. Maybe this is just a case of people putting fat on in different places.

 

@ solid and john_liu: I wonder why your four site measurements would have two arm measurements and none on the leg. exrx has a seven site method, and a three site method. Both include the thigh. I am kind of curious about both of your thigh measurements. The bottom of this page has a picture of where to do the fold.

On your four site method, where is the "waist" one done. Is it a suprailiac thing, or a belly measurement next to the navel?

Thanks, OGR

solid: "Looking at your pictures I'm a little surprised at those numbers. I would have guessed that you were lower."  I think there is some skinny-fat going on.

OGR:  thanks for the link, I will try that too. FYI, my thigh measurement is 10mm, and I took my waist measurement at the suprailiac location. 

The process of taking skinfold measurements got me thinking about one of my original questions, where is that 44 lb of fat?  I realized that a good part of is accounted for by just a thin layer of fat under the skin. 

Suppose my body surface area is 2.02 square meters (21.8 square feet).  http://www.halls.md/body-surface-area/refs.ht m  And that there is 0.25 cm (2.5mm, about 0.008 foot) of fat over all of it.  Seems like a very thin layer, only 1/10 of an inch.  That is 0.18 cubic feet of fat.  Fat weighs about 56 lb per cubic foot.  So that would be about 10 lb of fat right there.  And I obviously have considerably more subcutaneous fat that that, given these skinfold measurements, even with human skin being about 2.0mm thick.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/ pii/S0264410X07005786

Remember in my initial post when I said there couldn't possibly be over 2 gallon jugs worth of fat under my skin?  Well . . . a gallon jug is about 0.14 cubic feet. 

The mystery, at least it was a mystery to me, begins to clear up . . .

I wonder if it might be possible to calculate an estimate of visceral vs subcutaneous fat percentage, from comparing skinfold measurements to a total body fat measurement.

 

 

 

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