Measuring Visceral Fat: The Inside Story

two men of different weight measuring visceral fat close to one another

They say ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ but when it comes to the store of fat hiding within the muscle walls of your abdomen, you really do need to know about it. Learning to assess your visceral fat level is a positive move in the quest to protect yourself from the types of disease linked to this particular form of obesity.

We come in all shapes and sizes, and because visceral fat is buried deep inside our body, it is extremely difficult for health organisations to produce valid charts identifying it simply by using measurements of weight, height and gender. The fat that clings to our heart, liver and pancreas is a very individual commodity, and this is why a guide that fits everyone cannot be accurate.

The kind of fat known as visceral, or visceral adipose tissue (VAT) to use the clinical term, is the stuff that wraps around your abdominal organs. VAT is also sometimes known as ‘active’ fat because it doesn’t just lie there dormant; it releases acids which are then metabolised by the liver, causing hormonal problems such as insulin resistance. The presence of high levels of VAT can also result in too much fat in the bloodstream leading to hyperlipidaemia and type 2 diabetes.

Cardiovascular problems, pancreatitis, fatty liver and gall bladder disease can also be a result of persistently high levels of visceral fat. It has also been found to be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease and certain cancers.

BMI Compared with Waist to Hip Measurements

In assessing healthy weight ranges the BMI (body mass index) has long been the definitive guide to establishing your health prospects. ‘Morbidly obese’ is a frightening tag to put on someone, but clinicians use this term to describe anyone whose body mass index (BMI) is above a certain range for their gender and height. Anyone falling within this bracket may assume that in all likelihood they have an elevated internal fat quota. On the other hand, if your weight falls into the ‘healthy’ range you may be forgiven for assuming that all is well, but unfortunately the BMI does not specifically reflect visceral fat levels.

According to a US National Health and Nutrition Survey, it appears that the risk of mortality is greater in those with central obesity but whose general weight is within the normal range, compared with those who are generally obese. Research, as well as clinical observation, shows that it is quite possible to be slim and within a healthy BMI range, yet still be carrying a dangerous amount of internal fat.

In view of these findings, studies conclude that there is no dispute with the validity of the standard BMI categories which are very well established and widely used, but a serious need exists to check out your visceral fat measurements, in addition to establishing your BMI.

Methods of Measuring Visceral Fat

There are several very accurate methods of measuring internal fat but some may involve medical intervention, or at least clinical assistance:

MRI/CT Scans

These methods are labelled as the ‘gold standard’ of visceral fat measurement. They require skilled medical supervision, are expensive and therefore not regarded as being viable for general use. However, they are currently the only completely accurate means of establishing the extent of visceral fat.


A study conducted by the Graduate School of Engineering, University of Tokyo, successfully demonstrated a fast and accurate method of measuring visceral fat employing ultrasonography (high-frequency sound waves used to examine organs inside the body). When compared with the high accuracy of abdominal computed tomography, otherwise known as the CT scan, this method gives an accuracy of 91.3% for men and 85.8% for women, so a highly satisfactory result for a procedure that lasts less than 30 seconds. Because ultrasonography doesn’t use radiation, it may prove a good alternative to MRI and CT scans.

Home or Public-use Bioelectrical Impedance Devices (BID)

Another way of finding out your visceral fat level is by making an appointment with the practice nurse at your health centre/surgery or possibly a main-branch chemist to have your body fat percentage measured by a bioelectrical impedance device. These high-tech scales are also available for private home purchase.

Two of the top names in the field of bioelectrical impedance technology are Tanita and Omron. Both of these companies have invested in medical technology studies and trials to ascertain the accuracy of their products. Their scales are clinically validated and classified as medical equipment.

Conclusions of a study funded by Omron found that the BID has high potential as an accurate method of body composition analysis for public use. However, the point was made in summing up, that manufacturers should provide a function within the device allowing age, height, weight, BMI and ethnicity of users to be calculated as part of the algorithm in order to achieve satisfactory levels of accuracy.

The Tape Measure Test

A lady taking the tape measure test for visceral fat

This is one method of measuring visceral fat which costs nothing. It is a guide recommended by dieticians and can be easily carried out at home to provide a fairly good idea of what proportion of your abdominal fat is subcutaneous (that which is stored beneath the skin), and what percentage is visceral.

Here’s what to do to take these measurements:

  1. Firstly, take the circumference measurement of both your waist and your hips at their largest point
  2. Next, divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement
  3. If the ratio is higher than 1.0 for men and 0.85 for women then the amount of fat is considered excessive, i.e. for men a ratio of 36/40 is good, but some of this fat may still be subcutaneous
  4. To further refine the measurement and get a greater accuracy of visceral fat, measure your stomach while standing up and then measure it again when lying down. Subcutaneous fat will settle out to the sides of your stomach but visceral fat will not move
  5. The difference between your standing up and lying down measurement tells you how much of your stomach fat is the visceral kind

Where do we go from here?

Once you have established whether your own visceral fat store is at a healthy level, or that you need to concentrate your efforts on burning the excess amount, you will at least be able to go forward in a position of knowledge bringing strength. It has been conclusively established that simply controlling food is not enough.

Regular exercise is the secret to getting rid of dangerous levels of abdominal fat and it is those who remain slim by diet alone who are most at risk. So finding an exercise routine that suits your age and physical ability, with the prospect of building on it as your strength improves, is the best way to begin to whittle away your visceral fat.

Eating a diet consisting of plenty of vegetables, particularly those which contain soluble fibre, will help greatly with the burning of abdominal fat. Many vegetables fall into the category of containing soluble fibre but some are particularly useful. Foods such as oats and oat bran, legumes, Brussels sprouts (cooked), avocado and passion fruit have high amounts of soluble fibre.

It is also possible to take a natural dietary supplement to give yourself the soluble fibre you need so that if your diet is not always right on the mark, or you struggle with eating large amounts of the appropriate foods, you are covered.

NHS UK gives excellent advice on suitable exercise and the right food choices. They also provide ongoing support to help you achieve your goal.

Have Your Say

Have you found yourself to have unexpected levels of visceral fat despite a healthy BMI?

How did you go about measuring it? Let us know