Where you gain weight can affect your risk of certain health conditions.
Whether you’re short, tall, wide, or small, your body shape doesn’t define you, but it may reveal something important about your health.
You may know that being overweight—no matter what your body type—can increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. What you may not know, however, is that where you pack on the pounds can affect your risk even more.
What Your Body Shape Says About You
Where your fat ends up is largely influenced by heredity and hormones. If you tend to gain weight below the waist (hips and thighs), you’re more of a pear shape. If you gain weight around and above the waist (belly fat), you’re an apple shape.
Being apple-shaped is much more dangerous. It’s linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and type 2 diabetes. In women, excess abdominal fat also been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.
Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches and men with a waist larger than 40 inches are at an increased risk for such health problems.
Why Belly Fat Increases Your Health Risks
Why is being apple-shaped so concerning? Because not all types of fat are created equal. The fat that’s just under the skin, the kind that you can pinch and jiggle, is called subcutaneous fat. That’s the kind of fat that pear shapes have more of.
Abdominal fat, however, is largely a type of fat called visceral fat. Visceral fat lives deep within the belly, surrounding important organs, like the stomach and liver. Visceral fat cells are dangerous because they seem to be more biologically active than subcutaneous fat cells. Research has shown that visceral fat cells release harmful, inflammatory substances into other parts of the body, which affect a person’s health.
For one thing, since visceral fat lives so close to the liver, it releases substances that can travel to the liver and influence cholesterol production in the blood. This can increase a person’s risk of high cholesterol and insulin resistance.
Visceral fat also has been shown to pump out immune system chemicals, like cytokines, which have an effect on insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and clotting.
What You Can Do About Belly Fat
As scary as this all sounds, there is some good news. Losing belly fat can significantly lower your risk.
What’s the secret to shrinking belly fat? No surprise: diet and exercise. Moderate-intensity physical activity (like brisk walking) at least 30 minutes a day can help control weight in general. While strength training can help keep you fit and strong, don’t waste your time doing 100 crunches a day to reduce belly fat. While spot exercising can help strengthen your muscles, it won’t blast away visceral fat.
Diet is also important. Watch your portions, focus on filling your plate with produce, and avoid added sugars. For inspiration, here are some slim-down tips from “losers” who lost weight and kept it off.
Waist size predicts heart attacks better than BMI, especially in women. American Heart Association. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at https://news.heart.org/waist-size-predicts-heart-attacks-better-bmi-especially-women)
Health Risks of Being Overweight. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (Accessed on April 13, 2018 at https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/health-risks-overweight)
Waist Circumference and Waist-Hip Ratio Report of a WHO Expert Consultation. World Health Organization. (Accessed on April 12, 2018 at http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44583/9789241501491_eng.pdf)