The notches on your belt tell the tale: If your waistline has gained girth, you've got more than friendly padding. You've got too much belly fat, and that's a serious health issue.
Doctors have a catchy term for that too-familiar round belly -- the "apple" shape. If your fat has settled on the buttocks and thighs, you're a "pear" shape. Don't be fooled by the cutesy names, however. Belly fat (a/k/a visceral fat) is serious business.
"A big waistline puts you at increased risk for many health problems -- diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke," says Robert Eckel, MD, president of the American Heart Association.
Even skinny people can have unhealthy "hidden" belly fat. Research shows that fat may be folded deep inside the belly around the stomach organs, visible only by CT or MRI imaging. This fat puts people at the same health risks as someone with more obvious big girth, researchers say.
How Does Belly Fat Harm You?
Belly fat doesn't just lay idle at your beltline. Researchers describe it as an active "organ" in your body -- one that churns out hormones and inflammatory substances.
Abdominal fat is thought to break down easily into fatty acids, which flow directly into the liver and into muscle. When these excess fatty acids drain into the liver, they trigger a chain reaction of changes -- increasing the production of LDL 'bad' cholesterol and triglycerides. During this time, insulin can also become less effective in controlling blood sugar, so insulin resistance sets in.
Blood sugars start to get out of balance. Fats and clots get into the bloodstream, and that sets the stage for diabetes, heart disease, and more.
And research shows that abdominal fat triggers a change in angiotensin, a hormone that controls blood vessel constriction -- increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.
Indeed, belly fat is a primary indicator of "metabolic syndrome," a cluster of abnormalities that include high levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, and triglycerides, as well as low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. This combination of risks has an impact on mortality from heart disease.
The Belly Fat Bottom Line: What Can You Do?
Your genes dictate, to some degree, whether your body will be apple- or pear-shaped. There is evidence that specific genes determine how many fat cells you have -- and where those fat cells will settle. While genetics may mark you for belly fat, the story doesn't end there. Most of this is related to lifestyle -- physical inactivity and too much caloric intake.
Exercise is the golden path to help you lose belly fat. Liposuction doesn't do it... liposuction can't get rid of enough fat to eliminate the health risks. Bariatric [gastric bypass] surgery is somewhat more effective. It's not the ideal, but it does work to reduce risk factors
Bottom line: If you've got a big waistline, you must lose weight. Cutting calories is part of it. But physical activity is really the answer. People who get more physical activity lose a greater percentage of intra-abdominal fat. That means getting 30-60 minutes most days of the week.
Some examples of exercise: walking, running, and biking. "Find an activity that you find enjoyable," Eckel advises. "It needs to be an activity you can do on a regular basis, where you will burn calories. If it's not enjoyable, you won't maintain it. And unless you persist at it, it won't help you lose weight."
Also, get a support group. "A recent study shows that persistent support from a group or activity for literally the rest of your life -- that's what works," Eckel says.
If you reduce calories and exercise more, you will lose weight everywhere -- including your belly!
There's Hope for All of Us!