Most people would love to shed a few pounds, especially around the midsection. It doesn't have to be swimsuit season for us to want that six-pack, but belly fat goes way beyond appearance. Fat around our midsections means serious health consequences. Because it's closer to our organs, it's more dangerous than carrying fat in other areas of the body, such as the hips or legs.
There are many chronic health conditions that are either caused or worsened by this dangerous fat. Belly fat is different than other areas because of visceral fat. Most fat in our body is considered subcutaneous fat. This fat sits right below the skin surface. Fat in and around our bellies is made up of both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat, which is deep into our abdomens. This visceral fat crowds our organs and leads to serious health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer. Visceral fat has even been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and gallbladder problems in women.
Researchers at Mayo Clinic have found that belly fat is more important than your weight or BMI when predicting health problems. Even if you are considered 'normal weight,' having this deep visceral fat will put you at serious risk for health problems. In a study of 12,000 participants, those with excess belly fat were more likely to die of any cause, even more than those who were considered obese.
Concerned you may be at risk? Just break out the tape measure to see how you're doing. Take a deep breath in and let it out. Wrap the tape measure around your abdomen, just above your hip bones. Men with a waist circumference of more than 40 inches and women with more than 35 inches may be at increased risk for visceral fat.
Causes of belly fat
There are plenty of reasons people put on fat around their bellies. When we take in more calories than we burn, the body stores those extra calories as fat. As we age, we start to lose muscle mass and gain fat. Our genetics and family history also plays a role in the type of fat we gain.
Sorry to say it, but those Friday night cocktails aren't helping, either. Drinking excessive alcohol leads to putting on belly fat. We usually think of the typical 'beer belly,' but any alcohol can contribute to fat buildup.
Another risk factor for belly fat is stress. You may think you can just tough it out for a few more years at your crazy stressful job, but be careful. High levels of stress cause a buildup of cortisol in our systems. Over time, this stress hormone leads to increased belly fat.
Heart disease is probably the most serious consequence of having that spare tire around your midsection. According to researchers at Harvard, visceral fat is so dangerous because these fat cells pump out cytokines into the body. Cytokines are chemicals that affect our cells' ability to regulate insulin and blood pressure. When our bodies can't regulate organ function, the heart takes a hit. Having these cytokines floating around is linked to heart disease.
Does gender matter?
Both men and women are at risk for heart disease, but at different phases in their lives. Young women tend to put weight on in their hips and thighs, while young men usually add weight to their bellies. This may be why men in their 30s and 40s are more likely to experience heart disease than women. As women age and reach menopause, they tend to be more at risk for belly fat. They are also at an increased risk for heart disease as they age.
In fact, the Harvard Women's Health Watch study has found that visceral fat leads to high blood pressure and high cholesterol in women, which both contribute to chronic heart disease.
We know that excess fat puts us at higher risk for diabetes. Being overweight or obese actually makes us 90 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. It's more than just being overweight, though. Belly fat contributes to diabetes risk because it affects how our organs work.
Studies have shown that people with deep belly fat start to lose sensitivity to insulin. Insulin is the hormone that regulates our blood sugar levels, so when our bodies don't respond to it, sugar wreaks havoc on our systems. When our blood sugar levels continue to run high over time, we develop diabetes.