Visceral fat comes in two forms – visceral and subcutaneous, and the former poses deadly health risks. As opposed to subcutaneous fat, which lies just beneath the surface of the skin, visceral fat is located deep under the surface, near internal organs including the liver, stomach, and intestines. A build-up of the harmful belly fat can therefore increase the risk of developing life-threatening complications such as heart and liver disease.
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It is well understood that leading a healthy lifestyle offers the best defence against visceral fat but it may come as a surprise to hear that getting a certain amount of sleep can help to combat the harmful belly fat.
A six-year study investigating the relationship between sleep duration and visceral fat gain in 293 people found that increasing sleep from six hours or less to seven to eight hours reduced visceral fat gain by roughly 26 percent.
This study adds to a growing body of evidence linking sleep loss to a heightened risk of visceral fat gain.
One study published in the journal SLEEP found that extremes of sleep duration were associated with increases in abdominal fat in participants below the age of forty.
Researchers found that persons sleeping less than five hours at night gained more abdominal fat over a five year period, compared to those who averaged over six hours per night.
Lead researcher Dr. Kristen G. Hairston, of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina said the study focused on blacks and Hispanics because they are understudied and are at risk of obesity and related illnesses.
The study found that short sleepers showed a 32 percent gain in visceral fat, versus a 13 percent gain among those who slept six or seven hours per night, and a 22 percent increase among men and women who got at least eight hours of sleep each night.
In addition, the quality of sleep you get every night may also influence visceral fat gain.
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Several studies have also found an strong association between obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and visceral fat.
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a relatively common condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing.
As the NHS explains, this may lead to regularly interrupted sleep, which can have a big impact on quality of life and increases the risk of developing certain conditions.
In addition to maintaining a healthy sleep-cycle, exercising regularly also offers a robust defence against visceral fat.
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According to Harvard Health, engaging in moderate-intensity physical activity — at least 30 minutes per day (and perhaps up to 60 minutes per day) is a surefire way to control weight and lose belly fat.
Numerous studies support this claim, for example, an analysis of 15 studies in 852 people compared how well different types of exercise reduced visceral fat without dieting.
They found that moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercises were most effective at reducing visceral fat without dieting.
The results of the study should not downplay the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet, however.
Research recommends complementing an active lifestyle with a low-carb diet to combat the harmful belly fat.
In an eight-week study including 69 overweight men and women, scientists found that people who followed a low-carb diet lost 10 percent more visceral fat and 4.4 percent more total fat than those on a low-fat diet.
Ketogenic diets, drastically reduce carb intake and replace it with fat, have been shown to provide particular fat-burning benefits.
A study including 28 overweight and obese adults found that those who followed a ketogenic diet lost more fat, especially visceral fat, than people following a low-fat diet.
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