It’s a common enough riddle that you likely know the answer immediately:
Q. What do people make that you can’t see?
It’s clever, though not entirely accurate. That’s because there is something else people make all the time that we can’t see: visceral fat.
Visceral Fat vs. Subcutaneous Fat
We can see a person’s size, of course. If that person’s body weight translates to a comparatively oversized backside, for example, people may agree that the person is “fat.”
When we talk about the kind of fat located on a person’s belly, thighs, and rear, we’re referring to subcutaneous fat. It’s the fat just under the skin.
While body fat that accumulates in the belly area may serve as a tell-tale indicator of visceral fat, you can’t see visceral fat with the naked eye. Visceral fat hides beneath the surface, surrounding your internal organs.
It’s there that visceral fat contributes to a host of serious ailments, including higher total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and insulin resistance.
Both types of fat can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health. That makes diagnosing and treating the factors that contribute to obesity — now an epidemic in the U.S. — crucial.
While there are multiple techniques for measuring fat, however, not all of them are considered equal. In fact, some are now regarded as inaccurate or unreliable.
Another problem: measuring that impossible-to-see visceral fat suffocating the healthy operations of our vital organs.
So, which methods of measuring body fat — including and especially visceral fat — are the most accurate? Here’s the rundown.
Body Mass Index
For generations, professionals and laypeople alike lauded the body mass index (BMI) approach to determining a person’s body fat percentage. Today, however, BMI is recognized as an inadequate attempt to estimate something as physiologically complicated as body fat.
The simplistic formula — weight in pounds/(height in inches x height in inches) x 703 (to convert the index from the original metric version of the formula) — remains in favor at organizations such as the Center for Disease Control, but far more accurate tools are now available. WebMD gives BMI a grade of “D.”
Visceral fat measurement accuracy: BMI cannot measure visceral fat.
“Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry” — referred to as DEXA — offers highly detailed imaging capabilities. With it, healthcare professionals can measure bone density, muscle, and body fat.
That body fat measurement includes visceral fat, making DEXA testing an invaluable weapon for combating the deadly condition. DEXA is as convenient for patients as laying on a table for a procedure that lasts mere minutes. The DEXA scan uses a very small amount of radiation, roughly less than half the amount the average person would receive walking outside.
WebMD gives DEXA an A grade. One of its experts states “ … (I)f you have the opportunity to be tested by DEXA, go for it.”
Visceral fat measurement accuracy: DEXA is considered the “gold standard” for measuring visceral fat; no other technique is considered as accurate.
A technological step up from BMI, medical research into the accuracy of skinfold calipers finds them an improvement over BMI, but with some important caveats.
The most important of those is the skill and experience of the person administering the skinfold test. Are the exact same places on the subject’s body being tested? Is an appropriate amount of the patient’s body being pinched? Unimpressed by the relatively narrow window for accuracy here, WebMD gives skinfold calipers a grade of “D,” putting them in the same class as BMI.
Visceral fat measurement accuracy: Skinfold calipers cannot measure visceral fat.
Hydrostatic (Underwater) Testing
As its name suggests, hydrostatic testing involves the submersion of the test subject into a tank of water. Muscle is denser than fat, which helps practitioners of this technique calculate body composition.
Health professionals consider hydrostatic testing accurate. There are two notable downsides, though: the need to submerge the patient underwater and a relatively high barrier to entry with respect to cost and housing the large testing tank. WebMD says some might find the procedure “disconcerting” and expect it to reach “has-been” status soon. In a nod to its accuracy, the site nevertheless gives the method a B- grade.
Visceral fat measurement accuracy: Hydrostatic testing provides good body composition data. It cannot determine the distribution of especially dangerous visceral fat, though.
Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis
Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) involves a scale that sends an electrical current through your body to determine your body fat percentage by measuring fat and lean body mass. This feature is common in many newer bathroom scales, including those available at popular retailers like Walmart.com.
Unfortunately, even medical-grade BIA devices (which contact more of a subject’s body than just their feet) are not considered especially reliable. Even taking a shower before a test can impact results. WebMD gives BIA a C+ grade.
Visceral fat measurement accuracy: Consumer-grade scales with BIA cannot reliably and accurately measure visceral fat.
More Than Meets the Eye
Overcoming the threats presented by visceral fat means more than merely making its dangers “visible” to the general public. It also requires leading-edge tools. Right now, there is no better tool for identifying and measuring body fat and visceral fat than a DEXA machine.
As a result of its growing prominence in healthcare, DEXA scans are less expensive and more accessible than ever before. To learn more about how you can get a scan, contact us today.