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The Harmful Health Reality of Excess Belly Fat

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Oct 27, 2020

Carrying extra weight – especially belly fat – can be risky. 

 

If zipping up your favorite jeans or buttoning a shirt over your belly has become problematic, it’s time to face reality…you’re likely carrying excess belly fat. Whether you’re a man or woman, carrying an excess band of fat around your abdominal or midsection is risky to your health.

Accumulating belly fat can sneak up on a person. Contributing factors leading to gaining belly fat include consuming too many calories and not enough exercise, lack of sleep, getting older as aging can cause loss of muscle mass and a decreased metabolism, and your genetics which can determine where you tend to store body fat.

The dangers of deep belly fat

Unlike fat found on the hips and thighs, fat around the middle (belly fat) produces biologically active substances creating an environment conducive to serious health risks. Because of its proximity to the major organs in your midsection, think of belly fat sort of like an apron hanging from your large intestine surrounding your internal organs. When fat collects deep within the central abdominal area of the body known as visceral fat, it poses greater risks of major chronic diseases than excess fat lying just beneath the skin or what’s called subcutaneous fat found on hips, thighs, and buttocks. One danger is that fat cells of visceral fat are its own endocrine organ, secreting hormones, proteins, and other molecules having far-reaching negative effects on other tissue and organs nearby.

For instance, visceral fat releases more fatty acids into the blood than other types of fat tissue, contributing to a blood lipid profile associated with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of visceral fat, high blood glucose (insulin resistance), high blood pressure, and altered blood lipids greatly increasing risk of heart disease leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Visceral fat also makes proteins called cytokines, which can trigger low-level inflammation, another predictor of heart disease. This also acts as a precursor to angiotensin, a protein that causes blood vessels to constrict increasing blood pressure.

In addition, these same visceral fat cells lead to a loss of sensitivity to insulin, a hormone crucial for burning energy and keeping blood sugar in control. As a result, extra belly fat increases the risk of insulin resistance bringing its own potential complications. Insulin resistance often leads to type 2 diabetes affecting more than 34 million Americans and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

Besides heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, carrying excess belly fat may also increase the risk of other serious chronic diseases:

  • Dementia: Research shows that persons with high levels of abdominal fat are almost three times more likely to develop dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) when compared to persons with less abdominal fat.

 

  • Asthma: Carrying excess weight around the midsection increases the likelihood of women developing asthma than women with smaller waists. The risks were higher for women who were large-waisted and overweight or obese. It’s speculated that belly fat increases the risk of asthma due to its inflammatory effects throughout the body, including in the airways.

 

 

  • Breast cancer: Postmenopausal women with abdominal obesity are at a greater risk for breast cancer as found by a combined analysis of several studies.

 

  • Colorectal cancer: Developing colorectal cancer is three times greater in people with the most visceral fat than those with the least. A Korean study found that adenomatous polyps in the colon are associated with insulin resistance that may lead to colorectal cancer.

Gut check

You may think just simply looking at your abdomen will tell you if you have too much belly fat.  But a more definitive way to find out is to use a tape measure, placing it around the largest diameter of the belly or at the level of your navel to get an accurate measure.  Here are the steps to follow on measuring waist circumference accurately:

  • Stand and place a tape measure around your bare stomach at your navel.
  • Pull the tape measure until it fits snugly around you, but doesn’t push into your skin. Make sure the tape measure is level all the way around.
  • Relax, exhale and measure your waist, resisting the urge to suck in your stomach.

Men with a waist circumference 40 inches or greater or women with a waist circumference 35 inches or greater, indicates an unhealthy concentration of belly or visceral fat and is putting their health at risk.

Specific ways to target and shrink your midsection

No matter how many crunches or other targeted abdominal exercises you do, these exercises won’t get rid of belly fat.  They will tone your abdominal muscles, but belly fat can still be there.

Fortunately, there are proven strategies that have been shown to target belly fat.  Belly fat responds best to dietary changes and certain exercise strategies that help you lose weight and lower total body fat.   If you adopt these strategies, you can begin to win the battle of the bulge by whittling your waistline while improving your health.  Here are 6 ways how:

  1. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and slow down on alcohol

 

Numerous studies have shown that excess sugar from sugary beverages can lead to accumulation of fat in the belly and liver. It’s this increase in belly fat which leads to insulin resistance and a host of metabolic problems.  Sugar sweetened beverages are one of the prime reasons for increased risk of obesity in children and adults. Start today cutting out sugary beverages to eventually less than once a month or none at all.

 

Drinking excess alcohol of any kind can increase belly fat, primarily because it contains calories.   If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation.  The guidelines for moderate drinking are no more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women. The less you drink the fewer calories you’ll consume and the less likely you’ll gain weight in the abdominal region.

 

  1. Increase protein intake

If weight loss is your goal, then adding protein is perhaps the single most effective change you can make to your diet. And best of all, there is evidence protein is particularly effective against belly fat.

Adequate protein intake can help contribute to feeling fuller for longer periods of time, reducing hunger and calories. It is recommended to distribute your protein intake throughout the day to 25-30 grams at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Include protein-rich foods such as whole eggs, fish, lean beef, poultry, legumes, nuts, and dairy products, especially milk, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese.

  1. Include more foods high in fiber

 

Boosting fiber intake is one of the most effective ways to not only lose weight but also satisfying hunger.

 

Fiber is only found in foods of plant origin so load up on fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Ideally, aim for at least 25 up to 35 grams of fiber daily. Some studies have found that an additional 14 grams of fiber per day is linked to a 10% decrease in calorie intake and weight loss of almost 5 pounds over 4 months.

 

  1. Embrace consistent exercise

There’s nothing quite like regular consistent exercise to live and enjoy a long, healthy life. Besides helping with weight loss, reducing stress and anxiety, improving bone health and maintaining muscle mass, exercise is also effective at targeting belly fat.

For most adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends moderate amounts of aerobic activity, such as brisk walking for at least 150 minutes a week or vigorous activity, such as running, for at least 75 minutes a week.

Exercises most effective for shrinking your middle is aerobic exercise – brisk walking, running, swimming, tennis, basketball, racquetball, and even lifting weights. Exercise also provides an added bonus in reducing inflammation, lowering blood sugar levels, and improves all other metabolic abnormalities associated with excess abdominal fat

  1. Don’t smoke

Smoking not only increases risk of lung cancer and heart disease, research shows it causes more fat to be stored in the abdomen rather than on the hips and thighs, further increasing risk of disease even if they are slimmer than nonsmokers. Take proactive steps to kick the habit of smoking.

  1. Make sleep a priority

Studies have found that adults sleeping five hours or less a night accumulate significantly more visceral fat. Have a regular bedtime routine and practice good sleep hygiene to get sufficient shuteye.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.

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