Healthy US population reference values for CT visceral fat measurements and the impact of IV contrast, HU range, and spinal levels

Sci Rep. 2022 Feb 11;12(1):2374. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-06232-5.


Measurements of visceral adipose tissue cross-sectional area and radiation attenuation from computed tomography (CT) scans provide useful information about risk and mortality. However, scan protocols vary, encompassing differing vertebra levels and utilizing differing phases of contrast enhancement. Furthermore, fat measurements have been extracted from CT using different Hounsfield Unit (HU) ranges. To our knowledge, there have been no large studies of healthy cohorts that reported reference values for visceral fat area and radiation attenuation at multiple vertebra levels, for different contrast phases, and using different fat HU ranges. Two-phase CT scans from 1,677 healthy, adult kidney donors (age 18-65) between 1999 and 2017, previously studied to determine healthy reference values for skeletal muscle measures, were utilized. Visceral adipose tissue cross-sectional area (VFA) and radiation attenuation (VFRA) measures were quantified using axial slices at T10 through L4 vertebra levels. T-tests were used to compare males and females, while paired t-tests were conducted to determine the effect (magnitude and direction) of (a) contrast enhancement and (b) different fat HU ranges on each fat measure at each vertebra level. We report the means, standard deviations, and effect sizes of contrast enhancement and fat HU range. Male and female VFA and VFRA were significantly different at all vertebra levels in both contrast and non-contrast scans. Peak VFA was observed at L4 in females and L2 in males, while peak VFRA was observed at L1 in both females and males. In general, non-contrast scans showed significantly greater VFA and VFRA compared to contrast scans. The average paired difference due to contrast ranged from 1.6 to - 8% (VFA) and 3.2 to - 3.0% (VFRA) of the non-contrast value. HU range showed much greater differences in VFA and VFRA than contrast. The average paired differences due to HU range ranged from - 5.3 to 22.2% (VFA) and - 5.9 to 13.6% (VFRA) in non-contrast scans, and - 4.4 to 20.2% (VFA) and - 4.1 to 12.6% (VFRA) in contrast scans. The - 190 to - 30 HU range showed the largest differences in both VFA (10.8% to 22.2%) and VFRA (7.6% to 13.6%) compared to the reference range (- 205 to - 51 HU). Incidentally, we found that differences in lung inflation result in very large differences in visceral fat measures, particularly in the thoracic region. We assessed the independent effects of contrast presence and fat HU ranges on visceral fat cross-sectional area and mean radiation attenuation, finding significant differences particularly between different fat HU ranges. These results demonstrate that CT measurements of visceral fat area and radiation attenuation are strongly dependent upon contrast presence, fat HU range, sex, breath cycle, and vertebra level of measurement. We quantified contrast and non-contrast reference values separately for males and females, using different fat HU ranges, for lumbar and thoracic CT visceral fat measures at multiple vertebra levels in a healthy adult US population.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Contrast Media / administration & dosage*
  • Contrast Media / analysis
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Intra-Abdominal Fat / diagnostic imaging*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / diagnostic imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle, Skeletal / diagnostic imaging
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / instrumentation
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods
  • United States
  • Young Adult


  • Contrast Media