5 Simple Things You Should Start Doing ASAP if You're Over 40 and Want to Prevent Visceral Fat Buildup, According to Obesity Medicine Specialists

Woman measuring waistline for visceral fat buildup

As you get older, you may notice that it’s a little easier to put on weight and a little harder to lose it. You might also notice that some of that weight seems to be settling into your midsection. This is known as visceral fat.

This type of fat is found deep in the walls of your abdomen and surrounds your organs, according to Cleveland Clinic. A certain amount of visceral fat is important, as it protects your organs. Too much, however, can increase your risk of serious health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. 

So, how do you know if you have visceral fat? “The easiest way is to measure your waist circumference,” explains Dr. Angela Fitch, MD, chief medical officer at Knownwell and president of the Obesity Medicine Association. For women, if your waist (the area between the bottom of your ribcage and your hip bones) is 35 inches or more, you’re at risk for visceral fat-related health issues. Men are at risk when their waist is 40 inches or more.

Another way is to get a DEXA scan, which analyzes your body composition, including fat tissue, lean mass and bone density, Dr. Fitch says. But, these scans aren’t available everywhere.

Some visceral fat may be inevitable as you get older, research shows. It can be common for women to accumulate visceral fat during perimenopause or menopause. But, Dr. Fitch says there are steps you can take to prevent visceral fat buildup in your 40s and beyond.

What Exactly Is Visceral Fat?

Visceral fat is deep-abdominal fat that wraps around your organs, such as the liver, heart, intestines and kidneys, explains Dr. Anastasia Rairigh, MD, a family physician and obesity medicine specialist at PlushCare. “While some fat around these organs serves as a protective layer, too much can be harmful.” 

Related: The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Do if You Want to Avoid Visceral Fat Buildup 

Several factors can contribute to visceral fat buildup, including genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle habits, according to Cleveland Clinic. A diet high in fat, sugar and carbs and being consistently inactive could increase the likelihood of visceral fat buildup as well. Stress plays a role, too, by activating the hormone cortisol, which can trigger visceral fat storage. 

Women often see visceral fat buildup during perimenopause or menopause, Dr. Fitch says. Perimenopause can start in your 30s but typically begins in your early to mid-40s.

“As women age, a decrease in estrogen can lead to a loss of muscle and an increase in fat,” Dr. Rairigh explains. “Since muscle has a higher metabolic rate than fat, this combined strategy leads to a woman’s metabolic rate slowing down over time.” 

The main sign of visceral fat buildup is a growing belly. Developing more of a pear or apple body shape could also signal visceral fat, according to Cleveland Clinic. However, this might indicate an increase in subcutaneous fat, which is stored beneath your skin, as well. Both types of fat can contribute to belly fat. 

“Unhealthy fat can build up in many areas of the body, and all types of excess fat can lead to health problems,” Dr. Rairigh says.

Why Visceral Fat Can Be Harmful

An increase in visceral fat is linked to metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that increase your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and kidney and liver disease, Dr. Fitch says. “It’s this whole cascade of events,” including increased inflammation, blood sugar and insulin resistance. 

Related: Registered Dietitians Share Their Top 10 Secrets for Losing Weight After 60 

“Visceral fat can also increase inflammatory cytokines, which trigger inflammation within our bodies that lead to health problems from heart disease to decreased ability to fight off infections,” Dr. Rairigh says. 

This is why getting liposuction, which removes the subcutaneous fat below the skin, doesn’t lower your risk for these health problems in the same way that healthy weight loss does, she explains.

How to Prevent (and Lose) Visceral Fat

It’s possible to lose and prevent visceral fat. It starts with embracing a healthy lifestyle. Dr. Rairigh says it’s never too late to make these changes—even if you’re over 40.

“Anyone of any age or ability can discover and develop the right habits to help themselves live a healthier life,” she says. Here’s how:

1. Eat a healthy diet

Focusing on whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins can help prevent visceral fat buildup and lose any that you already have, Dr. Fitch says. Fiber-rich foods, like fruits, veggies and whole grains, can keep you full longer and prevent food cravings.

Also, reduce refined sugar, sodium and ultra-processed foods. Consider trying a low-carb diet, like keto, which trains the body to burn fat rather than carbs to fuel the body, Cleveland Clinic says.

Intermittent fasting, where you alternate between periods of eating and fasting, may also help you lose visceral fat, research shows.

2. Get moving

Getting and staying active minimizes visceral fat buildup, Dr. Rairigh says. Aim to exercise for about 30 minutes a day minimum. Choose whatever workout you prefer and will stick to, whether it’s strength training, HIIT, running, walking or yoga. But, moderate and high-intensity aerobic activity has been shown to be most effective at reducing visceral fat. 

Related: The Biggest Hormonal Change That Happens to Women Over 50—and How To Manage It 

“Adding resistance training will increase muscle mass, which speeds up your metabolic rate, helping you to avoid the spiral of insulin resistance and increasing visceral fat,” Dr. Rairigh adds.

3. Limit sugar and alcohol

“Sweetened drinks and alcohol are particularly high risk for increasing visceral fat,” Dr. Rairigh says. Research shows that people who eat more sugar tend to have more visceral fat. Excess sugar gets metabolized by the liver, which may increase visceral fat storage.

Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health in a number of ways. Too much might encourage your body to store fat as visceral fat. And, research suggests that people who drink more alcohol have a larger waist circumference, which is a hallmark of visceral fat buildup.

4. Reduce stress

Ongoing day-to-day stress can put extra strain on your body and cause cortisol surges, which may lead to visceral fat buildup, Dr. Fitch says. While it’s easier said than done, finding ways to reduce stress can help. That might be crafting, meditation, yoga, playing music or anything else that helps you blow off steam.

5. Get enough sleep

Most people don’t get enough sleep or good-quality sleep, especially women during perimenopause or menopause, Dr. Fitch says. This lack of sleep can increase visceral fat. But, aiming to get at least seven hours a night could minimize it.

When to See a Doctor

No matter how hard you try to prevent or lose visceral fat, it can still happen since genetic factors are at play, Dr. Fitch emphasizes. So, don’t blame yourself. 

“If you’re concerned about your body composition, you want to change your size, you think your abdominal circumference is increasing, I encourage people to see their doctor,” she adds. 

Doctors will discuss your medical history and do bloodwork to recommend a plan that will work for you, Dr. Rairigh says. That will likely include diet and exercise suggestions.

“The sooner you begin building these healthy lifestyle habits, the better you will do,” she adds. “I always tell my patients, ‘I would so prefer to address this before my patients have the diseases that come from excess weight.’”

Next, read the foods you shouldn’t eat if you have insulin resistance.