Pathophysiology of human visceral obesity: an update

Physiol Rev. 2013 Jan;93(1):359-404. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00033.2011.


Excess intra-abdominal adipose tissue accumulation, often termed visceral obesity, is part of a phenotype including dysfunctional subcutaneous adipose tissue expansion and ectopic triglyceride storage closely related to clustering cardiometabolic risk factors. Hypertriglyceridemia; increased free fatty acid availability; adipose tissue release of proinflammatory cytokines; liver insulin resistance and inflammation; increased liver VLDL synthesis and secretion; reduced clearance of triglyceride-rich lipoproteins; presence of small, dense LDL particles; and reduced HDL cholesterol levels are among the many metabolic alterations closely related to this condition. Age, gender, genetics, and ethnicity are broad etiological factors contributing to variation in visceral adipose tissue accumulation. Specific mechanisms responsible for proportionally increased visceral fat storage when facing positive energy balance and weight gain may involve sex hormones, local cortisol production in abdominal adipose tissues, endocannabinoids, growth hormone, and dietary fructose. Physiological characteristics of abdominal adipose tissues such as adipocyte size and number, lipolytic responsiveness, lipid storage capacity, and inflammatory cytokine production are significant correlates and even possible determinants of the increased cardiometabolic risk associated with visceral obesity. Thiazolidinediones, estrogen replacement in postmenopausal women, and testosterone replacement in androgen-deficient men have been shown to favorably modulate body fat distribution and cardiometabolic risk to various degrees. However, some of these therapies must now be considered in the context of their serious side effects. Lifestyle interventions leading to weight loss generally induce preferential mobilization of visceral fat. In clinical practice, measuring waist circumference in addition to the body mass index could be helpful for the identification and management of a subgroup of overweight or obese patients at high cardiometabolic risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adiposity* / genetics
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Ethnicity
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / metabolism
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / physiopathology*
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity, Abdominal / epidemiology
  • Obesity, Abdominal / genetics
  • Obesity, Abdominal / metabolism
  • Obesity, Abdominal / physiopathology*
  • Obesity, Abdominal / therapy
  • Phenotype
  • Prognosis
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult