Subcutaneous fat is stored just beneath the skin and can be pinched with your fingers.
Visceral fat lies deep within the abdominal walls and surrounds the organs.
Visceral fat tends to cause bad health, and subcutaneous fat, especially in legs, butt, and thighs tends to be protective.
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No matter how fit you are, having some fat on your body is normal and healthy. Fat is stored all over the human body, but not all fat is created equal. Your health can be impacted in different ways depending on where those fat deposits live.
Subcutaneous fat, for example, is generally stored just beneath the skin, such as the jiggly part of an underarm. It can be pinched with your fingers. Visceral fat, on the other hand, lies deep within the abdominal walls and surrounds the organs.
“Subcutaneous fat in certain areas can actually be a good thing,” says Dr. Aaron Cypess, a clinical investigator for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Generally speaking, visceral fat is more associated with risk for diabetes and heart diseases.”
Here’s what you should know about the differences between visceral and subcutaneous fat.
Visceral vs. subcutaneous fat
The term visceral is associated with the internal organs. This type of fat closely surrounds the stomach, liver, and intestines. Everyone has some visceral fat, as it cushions the organs and surrounds important blood vessels supplying blood to abdominal organs. However, there are some tell-tale signs of excessive visceral fat, Cypess says.
“The most obvious outward sign is the potbelly,” Cypess said. “People who are apple-shaped versus pear-shaped generally have more visceral fat.”
The term subcutaneous, on the other hand, means located just below the skin. As with visceral fat, some degree of subcutaneous fat is present in every human being as it is part of the connective tissue layer and helps protect deeper structures. Subcutaneous fat is pinchable and can exist anywhere on the body, but is most common in the lower body. This means it is less harmful than the deeper alternative in your abdomen, Cypess says. However, it is also worrisome in excessive amounts.
Body shape and size are determined by genetics, lifestyle, sex, and age. While diet and exercise alter the size of your body, the shape – where fat deposits accumulate – is largely determined by genetics.
“The genetics will set the distribution process, and what people do with their lives determines how it fills up,” Cypess says. “Genetics sets the table, and what you eat at the table can influence size and health.”
There are several ways to measure body fat and gauge health risk related to weight. Two common methods are calculating the waist-to-hip ratio and Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures the body’s fat based on height and weight. Waist measurement is a good way to measure visceral fat, while other methods are limited because they do not distinguish between fat types. A 2010 meta-analysis showed a clear relationship between BMI and mortality, with both underweight and overweight BMIs causing an increase in mortality.
A tool called a caliper can give accurate readings but is most useful for measuring subcutaneous fat.
Cypess says several factors determine a healthy fat percentage, including sex and age. For example, a healthy range for a woman 20-39 years old is 21%-32%, while the range for men in the same age group is 8%-19%.
Dangers of visceral fat vs. subcutaneous fat
There are several risks associated with visceral fat. Some studies suggest that deep abdominal fat plays a role in insulin resistance and inflammation, leading to
, diabetes, and cancer. Research also shows visceral fat is a strong predictor of mortality in men.
Risks of visceral fat include:
Diabetes: Visceral fat increases the risk of diabetes, which can cause long-term problems affecting the eyes, kidneys, heart, brain, feet, and nerves.
Hypertension: Visceral fat has been shown to increase the risk for hypertension, or high blood pressure, which heightens the risk for heart attack and stroke.
Heart disease: People with high levels of visceral fat are at higher risk of heart disease, which includes blood vessel conditions, coronary artery disease, and problems with the valves.
Cancer: Obesity, particularly excess visceral fat, has been linked to various types of cancers including colon, pancreas, breast, and kidney.
Dementia: Researchers have found a link between excess weight and dementia. One study reported patients whose abdominal measurements were highest were three times more likely to develop dementia than those with the lowest measurements.
According to Cypess, there is one important factor aside from poor diet and sedentary lifestyle that increases people’s risk of developing dangerous visceral fat deposits.
“Smoking is a big one,” Cypess says. “Especially for men.”
Though there is still much to learn about the role of subcutaneous fat, Cypess says, there is evidence that it can have some benefits. One small 2014 study in South Asians and Europeans linked subcutaneous thigh fat with a lower risk of diabetes. Subcutaneous fat is also associated with better cardiovascular health. In this study, researchers found more subcutaneous fat was associated with healthier arteries, while visceral fat had the opposite effect.
However, Cypess says, too much fat of any kind can be unhealthy.
How to lose visceral fat vs. subcutaneous fat
How to lose visceral fat around your mid-section for a healthier life
So far, Cypess says, there is no bullet-proof way to target visceral fat over subcutaneous fat.
“That’s the multi-billion-dollar question,” he says. According to Cypess, neither fat sculpting nor liposuction works long-term.
The best way to tackle weight loss is by exercising and eating healthy foods like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.
There is no magic secret to weight loss, Cypess says. The best way to successfully lose fat is to change your mindset and stick to a sustainable lifestyle. Maintaining a caloric deficit while eating nutritious foods and exercising is the best way to lose weight.
“Stop calling it a diet, because it doesn’t put the right idea in your head,” he says. “The best meal plan is the one you can stick to reliably for 5 to 10 years.”
Where your fat is deposited, and thus, your body shape, is largely predicted by genetics, but diet and exercise play a key role in physical health. Having an apple-shaped body or a pot-belly is indicative of excess visceral fat.
Visceral fat is associated with several health risks, while subcutaneous fat can provide some benefits. Too much of either kind can be detrimental to your health.
“The most important thing to remember is that visceral fat tends to cause bad health, and subcutaneous fat, especially in legs, butt, and thighs tends to be protective,” Cypess says. “Not all fat is bad in terms of health.”