Also known as abdominal fat or subcutaneous fat, belly fat poses serious health risks. If you have accumulated a “spread” over the years, it’s time to take action to get rid of it. Here’s some information on why belly fat is so bad for you, and what you can do about it.
A Serious Problem
Belly fat includes not only subcutaneous fat (the fat just below the skin), but also fat that lies deeper inside the abdomen. This is known as visceral fat. Having an excess of abdominal fat increases your chances of developing many different health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea.1
Too much body fat also raises the amount of “bad” cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein) and lowers the amount of “good” cholesterol (HDL, or high-density lipoprotein). It can also make it harder for your body to process insulin correctly, leading to dangerously high blood sugar levels.2
How it Happens
You don’t just accumulate body fat because of weight gain. Yes, you’ll pack on the pounds if you take in more calories than you burn off through exercise. However, age is also a contributing factor. The older you get, the more muscle you lose. This is especially true if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. This leads to a domino effect, of sorts. When you lose muscle mass, that reduces the rate that your body burns calories. That can make it even more difficult to avoid weight gain.
Genetics also play a role in the amount of body fat you have.3
Alcohol also contributes to the accumulation of abdominal fat. After all, they don’t call it a “beer belly” for nothing. Drinking alcohol – whether it’s beer, liquor, or any other type – can increase your body fat. The reason is that most forms of alcohol are packed with calories. For example:
- 12 ounces of beer contains 153 calories
- A four-ounce margarita contains 168 calories
- A nine-ounce pina colada contains a whopping 490 calories4
Researchers are determining the exact reasons why an excess of belly fat is harmful to the body. According to one theory, visceral fat cells (associated with fat deeper in the abdomen than subcutaneous fat) dump fatty acids into the liver, heart, pancreas, and other organs. The problem is that these organs aren’t designed to store fat. As a result, the organs don’t work properly. This can lead to the accumulation of bad cholesterol, heart problems, and increased blood sugar levels.5
In addition, research indicates that visceral fat produces chemicals known as cytokines that may increase the chances of developing cardiovascular problems.6
Belly Fat Changes and an Increased Risk of Heart Disease
Scientists conducted a study to determine if belly fat could affect risk factors for heart disease. They looked at CT scans of more than 1,100 participants..
The average age of the participants was 45. A little more than half were men. Researchers looked at not only their subcutaneous fat measurements, but also their visceral fat. The larger heart study took place over a six-year period. During this time, the participants’ subcutaneous fat had increased 22 percent, and their visceral fat increased by an average of 45 percent.
According to the researchers, the increases in fat correlated to an increase in heart disease risk. For each pound of additional fat, the study showed, risk factors for heart disease grew. These included metabolism problems and high blood pressure. Increases in both subcutaneous and visceral fat increased the risks even more. But it appears that an increase in visceral fat is more closely associated with higher chances of heart problems.7
Measuring Body Fat
You can find out if you have too much belly fat by simply using a tape measure.
All you need to do is place the tape measure around your stomach (without your shirt on) just above your hips. Then pull the tape until it’s snug. Just make sure it’s not making any sort of indention into the skin. The measure needs to be level all the way around your stomach. Then exhale and take the measurement. Don’t suck in your stomach because that will skew the results. If you’re a man and your belly measures 40 inches or more, then you have too much abdominal fat. If you’re a woman, a measurement of 35 inches or more is considered excessive.8
What You Can Do About It
If you measure your belly fat and find you have too much, don’t panic. Be concerned, but don’t panic. There are several things you can do to help reduce your belly fat. You’ll be reducing your chances for heart disease and other problems at the same time.
First, talk to your doctor about the best plan to attack the issue. If you are generally in good overall health, your physician will likely recommend you start an exercise regimen. Abdominal exercises such as crunches will help tone your stomach. But crunches alone won’t eliminate belly fat. You’ll need to incorporate a variety of different types of exercises.
You’ll also want to take some common-sense steps to change your diet. Consider:
Eating more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits
Only consuming low-fat dairy products
Cutting back on butter, cheese, and meats high in saturated fats
Eating more lean proteins, such as seafood
Cutting out processed meats
Also, keep a close eye on your portions at mealtime. Eat only half your meal when you’re at a restaurant, and take the rest home with you. Cut out sugary drinks, such as sodas, and drink water instead. When it comes to alcohol, cut it out entirely, or make sure you drink in moderation.
Again, physical activity will be key to battling weight gain and the accumulation of abdominal fat. Adults should try and get about two-and-a-half hours of moderate intensity exercise per week – or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. Aerobic exercises should be performed in 10-minute increments throughout the week. As you become more acclimated to your workout routine, try increasing your activity to 300 minutes (moderate intensity) or 150 minutes (vigorous) per week.9
The Bottom Line
If you’ve noticed an increase in abdominal fat creeping on your midsection over the years, the time to do something about it is now. Reducing your abdominal body fat will go a long way toward reducing the chances you’ll develop heart disease or other health problems. Just make sure you talk to your doctor first to put together the best plan of action.
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