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The Hidden Dangers Of Belly Fat You Should Be Aware Of

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The Hidden Dangers Of Belly Fat

Abdominal fat aka belly fat depends on hormonal and genetic factors, but may also develop due to poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and high stress levels. Research highlights that since belly fat surrounds vital internal organs, storing excess levels of this fat may increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and even cancers of gall bladder or pancreas.

When people talk about losing weight, they’re usually talking about subcutaneous fat – the fat that’s stored right beneath the surface of the skin on our arms, legs, stomach, and almost everywhere else on our bodies. However, there’s another kind of body fat that doesn’t garner as much attention but is just as important to monitor. We’re talking about visceral fat, more commonly referred to as abdominal fat or belly fat. Unlike subcutaneous fat, visceral fat is stored deep within the abdominal cavity and around important organs such as the liver, intestines, and pancreas to provide essential cushioning.

Is Excess Belly Fat Worse Than Excess Subcutaneous Fat?

The short answer is, yes. Researchers consider excess visceral fat to be more unhealthy, toxic, and inflammatory to the body than subcutaneous fat.1 Since visceral fat surrounds vital internal organs, storing excess levels of this fat leads to the release of inflammatory substances called cytokines within the body. Excess belly fat also interferes with our hormones, which can negatively impact brain function,2 appetite and metabolism3, mood4, sleep5, and fertility.6

How Do I Know If I Have Excess Belly Fat?

An apple-like body shape – that is, with most body fat stored around the midsection – and a bigger waistline are telltale signs of excess visceral fat. While belly fat is easiest to detect in people who are overweight or obese, even people who have a normal body weight (or even flat abs) may be carrying some amount of excess belly fat without even realizing it. It is therefore especially important to be vigilant about belly fat.

As per the Centers for Disease Control, a waist circumference of more than 35” in women and 40” in men is indicative of unhealthy levels of belly fat.7 You can also calculate your waist-to-hip ratio to assess your abdominal fat levels. Here’s how:

  • Measure your waistline around your belly button and then measure around your hips.
  • Divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement.
  • For women, this number should range between 0.8 and 1.00 and for men, it should be around 0.95.8

If your ratio is higher than these numbers, it is time to take action.

What Causes Belly Fat?

The amount of belly fat you develop depends to some extent on genetic/hereditary, hormonal, and metabolic factors. A recent scientific study based on a sample of more than 68,000 people found evidence to suggest that genes may determine the waist-to-hip ratio.9

But your genes alone isn’t to blame! While abdominal fat can depend on genetic factors, even someone who is not genetically predisposed to high levels of abdominal fat can develop it due to poor eating habits, lack of exercise, or inadequate stress management. In addition, hormones like cortisol, insulin, and estrogen have scientifically demonstrated relationships with abdominal fat. Low estrogen levels signal the body to gain weight, especially in menopausal women.10 Elevated cortisol levels due to exposure to stress are also known to cause abdominal fat accumulation.11 Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are also strongly correlated to the development of belly fat.12

Potential Dangers Of Belly Fat

Excess belly fat has been linked with a number of health conditions. Here are some of the dangers you run with a heavy midriff.

1. Heart Disease

A recent study of over 15,000 people showed that people with high levels of belly fat are more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases than people with optimal belly fat levels whether they were overweight or not.13

2. Type 2 Diabetes

Excess visceral fat makes one more likely to develop insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes.14

3. High Blood Pressure

Excess belly fat can result in high blood pressure and blood sugar levels. In addition, it also hikes your triglycerides and lowers good cholesterol.15

4. Cancer

Cytokines released by visceral fat tissue can trigger cancerous activity in healthy cells and interfere with other hormones in the body. This means people with excess abdominal fat are more prone to cancers of the breast, kidney, colon, gall bladder, and pancreas.16

5. Dementia And Alzheimer’s

Studies have shown that unhealthy amounts of visceral fat can literally shrink our brains and increase our risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s as we get older.17

6. Sleep Disorders

High levels of belly fat have been linked to obstructive sleep apnea and related symptoms such as snoring, daytime sleepiness, and fitful sleep.18

7. Depression

Scientists have found evidence to suggest that there is a strong correlation between visceral fat levels and depression or depression-like symptoms.19

8. Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is more commonly experienced by people with excess abdominal fat. Cytokines and adipokines released by visceral fat tissue can make one more likely to develop not only osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis but also fibromyalgia.20

Does Gender Play A Role?

Women tend to carry more subcutaneous body fat. In contrast, men are more susceptible to developing visceral fat. This also explains why women tend to develop a pear-shaped body (more subcutaneous fat stored around the hips and buttocks) while men develop an apple-shaped physique (more abdominal/visceral fat in the midsection). Recent research, however, suggests that women can become more prone to developing belly fat as they go through menopause.21

Conquering Belly Fat

The four most beneficial things you can do to reduce belly fat levels are:

1. Eating Clean

Foods like brown bread, brown rice, and high-fiber oatmeal can help decrease belly fat. The CDC recommends plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and beans to reduce both subcutaneous and abdominal fat.22

Foods high in polyunsaturated fats (soybean oil, sunflower oil, herring, salmon, trout)23 and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, avocados, almonds, peanut butter)24 can also help battle belly fat.

It is also very important to drink plenty of water every day25 and avoid foods high in sugar, including sugary drinks.

2. Exercising Regularly

Even a moderate amount of exercise is crucial for losing belly fat.26 But just like subcutaneous fat, it is impossible to “target” visceral fat when exercising. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that abdominal exercises alone help reduce abdominal fat.27 Instead of spot reduction, focus on a more holistic program aimed at weight loss and muscle building. Get in some moderate to intensive exercise 5 days a week. High-intensity exercise training has been found to significantly lower visceral fat levels.28

3. Reducing Stress Levels

The body’s stress hormone, cortisol, is positively correlated with visceral fat gain.29 Better stress management habits can, therefore, help lower abdominal fat. So remember to make time for yourself every day, breathe deeply, focus your energies, and identify ways in which you can de-stress.

4. Getting Plenty of Sleep

Studies have shown that people who get only around 5 hours of sleep a night gained more weight over time than people who got 6-7 hours of shut-eye each night.30

References   [ + ]

1. Why is visceral fat worse than subcutaneous fat? University of Illinois.
2. Is a big belly bad for the brain? National Institute on Aging.
3. Menopause, Metabolism, and Visceral Fat Accumulation. University of Rochester Medical Center.
4. Lee, Eon Sook, Yang Hyun Kim, Sung‐Ho Beck, Sangyeoup Lee, and Sang Woo Oh. “Depressive mood and abdominal fat distribution in overweight premenopausal women.” Obesity research 13, no. 2 (2005): 320-325.
5, 18. Pillar, Giora, and Naim Shehadeh. “Abdominal Fat and Sleep Apnea The chicken or the egg?.” Diabetes care 31, no. Supplement 2 (2008): S303-S309.
6. Obesity: Unhealthy and unmanly. Harvard Health Publications.
7. Assessing Your Weight. CDC.
8. Waist Size Matters. Harvard Health Publications.
9. Nettleton, Jennifer A., Jack L. Follis, Julius S. Ngwa, Caren E. Smith, Shafqat Ahmad, Toshiko Tanaka, Mary K. Wojczynski et al. “Gene× dietary pattern interactions in obesity: analysis of up to 68,317 adults of European ancestry.” Human molecular genetics (2015): ddv186.
10. What Does Estrogen Have To Do With Belly Fat?. University of Rochester Medical Center.
11. Epel, Elissa S., Bruce McEwen, Teresa Seeman, Karen Matthews, Grace Castellazzo, Kelly D. Brownell, Jennifer Bell, and Jeannette R. Ickovics. “Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat.” Psychosomatic medicine 62, no. 5 (2000): 623-632.
12. Deen, D., 2004. Metabolic syndrome: time for action. American family physician, 69(12).
13. Belly fat boosts risk of dying of heart disease. Harvard Health Publications.
14. Abdominal fat and what to do about it. Harvard Health Publications.
15. Taking aim at belly fat. Harvard Health Publications.
16. Obesity and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute.
17. Is a big belly bad for the brain? Examining body fat’s ties to dementia, National Institute on Aging.
19. Depression Linked With Accumulation Of Visceral Fat. ScienceDaily.
20. How Fat Affects Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
21. Lovejoy, J. C., C. M. Champagne, L. De Jonge, H. Xie, and S. R. Smith. “Increased visceral fat and decreased energy expenditure during the menopausal transition.” International journal of obesity 32, no. 6 (2008): 949-958.
22. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight. CDC.
23. Polyunsaturated Fats. American Heart Association.
24. Monounsaturated Fats. American Heart Association.
25. Stookey, Jodi D., Florence Constant, Barry M. Popkin, and Christopher D. Gardner. “Drinking water is associated with weight loss in overweight dieting women independent of diet and activity.” Obesity 16, no. 11 (2008): 2481-2488.
26. Slentz, Cris A., Lori B. Aiken, Joseph A. Houmard, Connie W. Bales, Johanna L. Johnson, Charles J. Tanner, Brian D. Duscha, and William E. Kraus. “Inactivity, exercise, and visceral fat. STRRIDE: a randomized, controlled study of exercise intensity and amount.” Journal of Applied Physiology 99, no. 4 (2005): 1613-1618.
27. Vispute, Sachin S., John D. Smith, James D. LeCheminant, and Kimberly S. Hurley. “The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 25, no. 9 (2011): 2559-2564.
28. Irving, Brian A., Christopher K. Davis, David W. Brock, Judy Y. Weltman, Damon Swift, Eugene J. Barrett, Glenn A. Gaesser, and Arthur Weltman. “Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 40, no. 11 (2008): 1863.
29. Torres, Susan J., and Caryl A. Nowson. “Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity.” Nutrition 23, no. 11 (2007): 887-894.
30. Hairston, Kristen G., Michael Bryer-Ash, Jill M. Norris, Steven Haffner, Donald W. Bowden, and Lynne E. Wagenknecht. “Sleep duration and five-year abdominal fat accumulation in a minority cohort: the IRAS family study.” Sleep 33, no. 3 (2010): 289-295.