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Understanding Belly Fat

Why the weight you’re carrying deep in your abdomen—visceral fat—puts your health at risk
Written by 
Donna Fennessy
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Pot belly. Tummy pooch. Muffin top. There are plenty of names for the fat many of us wish we could trim from our middles. Aiming for a flatter stomach isn’t just a matter of appearances: Over the last several years, experts have discovered that where you carry your fat makes a big difference to your health, and belly fat has emerged as particularly harmful.

If you’re carrying extra weight around your waist, it could be a sign that you have unhealthy amounts of visceral fat, which deposits deep in the belly area, settling behind the abdominal muscles around vital organs. Also known as abdominal fat, it acts like an organ itself, spewing out hormones, immune-system chemicals and other compounds that may interfere with the body’s normal functioning. Some of these substances end up in the liver, where they can affect the production of blood fats, increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides and lowering HDL (good) cholesterol. What may even be more significant is that visceral fat puts out substances that increase inflammation in the body. This may explain why belly fat is associated with insulin resistance and diabetes, heart disease and cancers of the breast, liver, kidney and pancreas.

You don’t have to be overweight or obese to have visceral fat. People who are considered “normal weight” by the body mass index scale can also have surprisingly high levels of the disease-causing fat.


How It Happens

Where extra pounds settle on our bodies is a matter of genetics, as well as other factors we can control. Some people are more prone to having an apple shape—rounder in the middle; others are more likely to be a pear shape—wider at the bottom, in the hips and butt. You can probably see body-shape trends in your family. Pear-shaped people tend to have more subcutaneous fat (the type that lies just beneath your skin), whereas those who are more apple-shaped often have more visceral fat.

Aging changes our bodies more than we’d like, but the more you know about what’s going on, the more you can take steps to do something about it. Drops in muscle mass that occur with aging can make it more difficult to burn calories efficiently, and thus, shed pounds or maintain your weight. Men and women need to strength train in order to fight the natural decline in muscle mass. For women, the dips in estrogen that occur after menopause play an even greater role in how your body stores fat, especially the dangerous abdominal fat.

Although this may all sound daunting, there’s good news: While subcutaneous fat is notoriously difficult to shed (think cellulite), visceral fat responds more easily to diet and exercise changes. Here are a few simple things you can do today to keep belly fat in check. 


Measure your waist. Your waist circumference can be an indication that you’re carrying too much belly fat. Measure the area just above your hip bones. A healthy cutoff is less than 35 inches for women and less than 40 inches for men. (It’s lower for Asians: Less than 31.5 inches for women and less than 35.5 inches for men is considered healthy.) You can go a step further if your BMI is below 25. In that case, waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is a better indicator of your belly fat. To calculate this number, divide your waist circumference by you hip circumference. A healthy WHR is 0.90 or less for men and 0.80 or less for women.


Get moving. Exercise offers a one-two punch against visceral fat. Aerobic exercise helps you keep your weight under control while strength training helps you maintain or increase your muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat tissue does. Not sure where to start? Walking is a great activity that nearly anyone can do. Don’t bother with spot training—sit-ups and crunches will strengthen your core, but they won’t help you lose weight in this area.


Eat a healthy diet. It’s easy to be tempted by the claims of fad diets or foods or supplements that supposedly help burn belly fat. But remember the old adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A better strategy is to focus on eating a nutritious, balanced diet. For most people, this will include whole-grains, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats.


Keep stress in check. If you’re like most of us, there’s no shortage of stress in your life, whether it’s due to financial issues, family matters or work problems. But stress can lead to weight gain or make it difficult to lose extra pounds by changing your body chemistry and behaviors.


Get your rest. Do you often push back your bedtime to gain a few hours to finish up work, get ahead on household chores or simply catch up on your favorite TV shows? You may want to rethink this. Numerous studies have shown a connection between skimping on sleep and weight gain. Most of us need seven to nine hours a night, so make sure you do your best to get some decent sleep. Sleep apnea, a condition where the airway is obstructed during sleep, can also increase abdominal fat (and vice versa), so it’s important to see your doctor if you or a loved-one suspects you may not be breathing properly at night.

Reference(s) 
The Endocrine Society
The Harvard Men's Health Watch
The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide
Mayo Clinic
Obesity (February 2006)
Rush University Medical Center
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. National Library of Medicine
Weight Control Information Network
About the author 
Donna Fennessy is a freelance writer who covers health, nutrition, parenting and lifestyle issues. She lives in Massapequa, NY.