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Many of us would love to look in the mirror and see a perfectly flat stomach with defined abs. And while that can be a goal to strive toward, the more important problem with fat around your midsection—otherwise known as “belly fat”—is its huge health risks, which could even shorten your life.
A large waistline usually means this “visceral” fat is not just under the skin (subcutaneous fat), but that it’s deep inside your body. “Visceral fat is not the type of fat you can pinch with your fingers,” says registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. “Instead, it is the dangerous fat that lies below the abdominal wall, blanketing vital organs and releasing chemicals and hormones that trigger inflammation.” It’s this inflammation that can ramp up your chances of everything from heart disease to cancer. Studies have shown fat in the abdominal location, even if you’re not fat elsewhere, is linked to higher mortality.
So how can you tell if you are too apple-shaped? “Having a waistline greater than 40 inches or 102 centimeters puts men at greater risk for complications,” says Jonathan Valdez, owner of Genki Nutrition and media rep for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For women, a waist measurement of 35 inches or 89 centimeters or more is cause for concern.” People of Asian descent have slightly different recommendations: under 35 inches for men and 31 for women. In addition, if you’re BMI (body mass index) is 25 or greater (23 for Asians), you fall into the overweight range; a BMI of 30 or higher indicates obesity.
“Every inch you lose around your waistline can lessen your disease risk—however aiming to achieve a waist circumference below these goals is the most effective way to reduce the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers,” Palinski-Wade says.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to lose of belly fat specifically. “You cannot spot reduce when trying to lose weight, but certain dietary habits and behaviors can help to prevent visceral fat storage and increase the body’s ability to burn off this fat,” Palinski-Wade says. She advises reducing stress, since stress hormones such as cortisol may play a role in belly fat. “Increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C can help to reduce circulating stress hormones in the body, which may offset the storage of fat in this area,” she says. Also, “high intensity interval training has also been linked with a greater reduction in visceral fat when compared to moderate intensity exercise.”
A healthy diet and exercise can help you drop weight all around, including your belly. Losing even five to 10 percent of your body weight (so for a 200-pound person, that’s just 10 pounds), has been shown to reduce health risks. Here are the benefits your body can expect to see:
More than one in three Americans has prediabetes, when blood sugar is not yet high enough to be called diabetes but high enough to be concerning—and 90 percent don’t know they have it. One of the biggest risk factors, though, is being overweight. “Excess belly fat increases insulin resistance, and since insulin is the key that unlocks cells to allow sugar in, the more resistant you become to insulin, the more sugar builds up in the blood stream,” Palinski-Wade says. “As you lose visceral fat, insulin resistance decreases, allowing sugar to enter cells more freely and allowing blood glucose levels to remain in a healthy range.” Dropping just five percent of your body weight will do.
Dropping your blood sugar also decreases your risk of developing full-blown diabetes, which has clearly been shown in research to be linked with belly fat. This fat accumulation “impairs insulin signaling, decreases glucose uptake by muscle cells, and impairs the liver’s ability to recognize when it should stop releasing additional glucose into the bloodstream,” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, associate director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation. “Each of these can lead to increased risk for diabetes.” In addition, “losing weight also improves the function of beta cells, which are the cells in the pancreas that make insulin,” she says. Here are more health secrets your pancreas wishes it could tell you.
As Dr. Webster mentioned, fat around the belly affects the way the liver, your natural “detox” system, performs. “Visceral fat harms the body through lipotoxicity,” Valdez says. In this process, metabolic byproducts from visceral fat cells are released directly into the bloodstream. “The liver and other organs are not designed to accumulate large amounts of free fatty acids,” Valdez says. “Too much accumulation of fatty acids in the liver can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. In severe cases, inflammation from the fatty liver could lead to cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver.” Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to prevent liver disease.
Researchers have found that even a five percent weight loss lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease and improves overall metabolic function—and other studies point to belly fat as a particular culprit when it comes to your risk. Losing weight can also lower your blood pressure. Too much fat tissue “puts extra stress on the heart as it works to pump a larger amount of blood to our tissues and organs,” Dr. Webster says. “Even a modest five percent weight loss can help manage or prevent cardiovascular disease in overweight and obese people by improving these risk factors.” In addition, “excess belly fat can increase inflammatory hormones in the body and raise level of cholesterol, triglycerides, and homocysteine—an independent risk factor for heart disease,” Palinski-Wade says.
You might not think that your jean size affects how well you nod off at night. But a study from Johns Hopkins found that losing belly fat increases sleep quality, judged by levels of daytime fatigue, insomnia, restless sleep and other factors. Obesity and being overweight are also linked with the serious condition sleep apnea, in which soft tissues of the throat close, obstructing breathing. “Losing weight can help reduce snoring and sleep apnea, and can improve the quality of your sleep in general,” says Richard Shane, PhD, behavioral sleep therapist and creator of the Sleep Easily Method. Here are subtle sleep apnea warning signs you could be ignoring.
Having a lot of belly fat, regardless of overall weight, is linked with colon and rectal cancer, and probably with others such as pancreatic and breast cancer as well, according to the American Cancer Society. “Although the exact pathways are unknown, it is thought that the increased inflammatory and increased hormone production brought about by excess belly fat may increase the risk for certain cancers,” Palinski-Wade says. Losing even a small amount of weight may help.
Not surprisingly, carrying around a heavy belly can put a lot of strain on your joints (just ask anyone who’s been pregnant!). “Excessive weight can be a burden to your joints, which can then leads to arthritis,” Valdez says. Losing 10 pounds actually reduces the pressure on your knees by 40 pounds. Plus, visceral fat may cause chronic inflammation, which could make arthritis worse. “The inflammatory compounds released by fat tissue can influence arthritis development,” Dr. Webster says. “Fewer pro-inflammatory markers are produced after weight loss, which may reduce risk for arthritis.”
The hormone disruptions caused by visceral fat may be why women who are overweight or obese may have irregular periods. “Being obese may cause abnormal menstrual cycles from the presence of excess fat that produces large amounts of estrogen, causing hormone imbalances,” Valdez says. This can definitely play a role in fertility for women trying to conceive, says Jane van Dis, MD, chair of the department of obstetrics & gynecology at Bakersfield Memorial in California. “The hormones that regulate our food [such as insulin] are connected to our sex hormones,” she says. “While weight may only be a contributor to infertility, it's something most women can change with diet and exercise.” Men aren’t off the hook, either. “For men, [being overweight] could lead to erectile dysfunction and reduced reproductive potential,” Valdez says.
Although it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg scenario, research has found that losing a bit of weight does improve mood and reduce depressive symptoms. This may be due to the weight loss itself or the change in lifestyle factors that led to it, such as stress reduction and exercise. “Exercising releases endorphins, which helps keep depression at bay,” Valdez says. Beyond physical activity, “looking good can also help your self-esteem,” Valdez says. The regulation of hormones and improved sleep can also contribute to the better sense of well-being that comes with dropping belly fat.