Doctors Get New Tool to Measure Belly Fat


Losing weight is a top new year’s resolution. And while a quick hop onto a scale can show how much you have to lose, it can be trickier to determine how much visceral fat, or belly fat, you have to eliminate. Studies have shown visceral fat can pose greater health issues down the road compared to fat located in other areas on the body.

“Just as important as obesity is where the fat is located,” says Dr. Donald Dengel,  associate professor, Exercise Physiology in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. “If the fat is packed into the visceral area, we’ve found it has a high relationship with cardio vascular disease.”

He continued to explain that when fat is packed around the belly, it interferes with key organs in the abdominal region that are related to the endocrine system- which produces insulin. Carrying too much fat in this area can obstruct organs’ ability to regulate cholesterol or glucose.

There is current technology to measure fat content to keep your weight in check, but according to Laura Stoltenberg, general manager of GE Healthcare’s Lunar business, it can be misleading. Take the body mass index, for example. Sure it takes into account weight and height, and tells you where you fall on the index, but two people with the same body mass index can have completely different health profiles, Stoltenberg claims.

Up until now, the only way to identify visceral fat was to use a CT scan or to get an MRI, which both have their own limitations. According to Dengel, they both are costly procedures and CT scans emit levels of radiation.

Recently, GE Healthcare unveiled CoreScan, new technology that can quickly measures visceral fat during a body composition analysis. Using dual energy X-rays, the technology measures a person’s visceral fat. It uses the same basic technology to measure bone density for osteoporosis, but is tweaked to determine the amount of belly fat.

The visceral fat analysis is noninvasive, the patient keeps his or her clothes on, lays down on a table and a certified technician will do the scan in a doctor’s office. The scan takes around 10 minutes, says Stoltenberg, and the patient gets a report instantaneously. Because the technology is new, it’s not covered by insurance and can cost a patient anywhere from $50 to $150 for a scan, says Stoltenberg.

Only time will tell how the new scan will impact treatment. “Before CoreScan came along we didn’t have the option,” says Dengel. “When someone came in they got an analysis of their body composition, but they didn’t have the option to look at visceral fat.”  CoreScan can provide doctors a more accurate picture of patients’ health, and Dengel predicts that in a few years, many doctors wi ll use the technology and will treat patients differently as a result.

Dengel says the technology will likely be helpful to bariatric surgeons who work with very morbidly obese patients. These specialists are very interested in visceral fat, he says. What’s more, Dengel says he can even envision drug companies developing drugs that target visceral fat thanks to the technology.

Whether or not you will have to pay for this knowledge will depend largely on what the technology can produce, says Dengel. “We’re going to have to see really solid evidence that ‘X amount’ of visceral fat places you at ‘X amount’ of risk before insurance companies step in.” He says it will take time for insurance companies to get on board and cover a scan like this. After all, it took the industry years to pay for scans to measure bone density.