The photos below, from Wikipedia, show two patterns of abdominal fat deposition. The one on the left is predominantly of subcutaneous abdominal fat deposition. The one on the right is an example of visceral abdominal fat deposition, around internal organs, together with a significant amount of subcutaneous fat deposition as well.
Body fat is not an inert mass used only to store energy. Body fat can be seen as a “distributed organ”, as it secretes a number of hormones into the bloodstream. For example, it secretes leptin, which regulates hunger. It secretes adiponectin, which has many health-promoting properties. It also secretes tumor necrosis factor-alpha (more recently referred to as simply “tumor necrosis factor” in the medical literature), which promotes inflammation. Inflammation is necessary to repair damaged tissue and deal with pathogens, but too much of it does more harm than good.
How does one differentiate subcutaneous from visceral abdominal fat?
Subcutaneous abdominal fat shifts position more easily as one’s body moves. When one is standing, subcutaneous fat often tends to fold around the navel, creating a “mouth” shape. Subcutaneous fat is easier to hold in one’s hand, as shown on the left photo above. Because subcutaneous fat tends to “shift” more easily as one changes the position of the body, if you measure your waist circumference lying down and standing up, and the difference is large (a one-inch difference can be considered large), you probably have a significant amount of subcutaneous fat.
Waist circumference is a variable that reflects individual changes in body fat percentage fairly well. This is especially true as one becomes lean (e.g., around 14-17 percent or less of body fat for men, and 21-24 for women), because as that happens abdominal fat contributes to an increasingly higher proportion of total body fat. For people who are lean, a 1-inch reduction in waist circumference will frequently translate into a 2-3 percent reduction in body fat percentage. Having said that, waist circumference comparisons between individuals are often misleading. Waist-to-fat ratios tend to vary a lot among different individuals (like almost any trait). This means that someone with a 34-inch waist (measured at the navel) may have a lower body fat percentage than someone with a 33-inch waist.
Subcutaneous abdominal fat is hard to mobilize; that is, it is hard to burn through diet and exercise. This is why it is often called the “stubborn” abdominal fat. One reason for the difficulty in mobilizing subcutaneous abdominal fat is that the network of blood vessels is not as dense in the area where this type of fat occurs, as it is with visceral fat. Another reason, which is related to degree of vascularization, is that subcutaneous fat is farther away from the portal vein than visceral fat. As such, it has to travel a longer distance to reach the main “highway” that will take it to other tissues (e.g., muscle) for use as energy.
In terms of health, excess subcutaneous fat is not nearly as detrimental as excess visceral fat. Excess visceral fat typically happens together with excess subcutaneous fat; but not necessarily the other way around. For instance, sumo wrestlers frequently have excess subcutaneous fat, but little or no visceral fat. The more health-detrimental effect of excess visceral fat is probably related to its proximity to the portal vein, which amplifies the negative health effects of excessive pro-inflammatory hormone secretion. Those hormones reach a major transport “highway” rather quickly.
Even though excess subcutaneous body fat is more benign than excess visceral fat, excess body fat of any kind is unlikely to be health-promoting. From an evolutionary perspective, excess body fat impaired agile movement and decreased circulating adiponectin levels; the latter leading to a host of negative health effects. In modern humans, negative health effects may be much less pronounced with subcutaneous than visceral fat, but they will still occur.
Based on studies of isolated hunger-gatherers, it is reasonable to estimate “natural” body fat levels among our Stone Age ancestors, and thus optimal body fat levels in modern humans, to be around 6-13 percent in men and 14–20 percent in women.
If you think that being overweight probably protected some of our Stone Age ancestors during times of famine, here is one interesting factoid to consider. It will take over a month for a man weighing 150 lbs and with 10 percent body fat to die from starvation, and death will not be typically caused by too little body fat being left for use as a source of energy. In starvation, normally death will be caused by heart failure, as the body slowly breaks down muscle tissue (including heart muscle) to maintain blood glucose levels.
Arner, P. (2005). Site differences in human subcutaneous adipose tissue metabolism in obesity. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 8(1), 13-17.
Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Fleck, S.J., & Kraemer, W.J. (2004). Designing resistance training programs. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories: Challenging the conventional wisdom on diet, weight control, and disease. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.