Why belly fat is dangerous and how to control it

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Obesity is a major issue in the United States, but the latest research suggests we may need to change the way we look at fat.

Historically, we’ve used the Body Mass Index, or BMI, to determine body fatness. It is calculated using a person’s height and weight.

Research here at UT Southwestern and other institutions suggests it may be more important to examine a person’s “fat distribution profile.” Where is the fat accumulating in the person’s body? What risks does that present?

Although obesity rates in the United States have stabilized in recent years, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown a disturbing trend. The study suggests that belly fat is becoming much more common among U.S. adults.

This is very concerning because that’s the most dangerous kind of fat. When fat develops in the abdominal region, it can surround internal organs. Research at UT Southwestern and elsewhere has shown that this kind of fat puts people at greater risk for developing several kinds of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, liver problems, some types of cancer, and risk for sudden death. On the other hand, fat that accumulates in the hips and buttocks may not only be less harmful but may actually protect against these medical problems.

In other words, two people who weigh the same could have dramatically different risks of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, depending on where fat is deposited in their bodies.

We’re not sure why belly fat is increasing, but we know people in the United States have become less active over the past several decades. Portion sizes at restaurants also have gotten larger. People seem to have less free time in their lives, and they are resorting to processed foods and fast food more often.

Measuring your abdominal fat

The only way to precisely measure harmful abdominal fat is through advanced imaging methods like CT or MRI scans. But you can get a general idea of how much abdominal fat you have with a simple waist circumference measurement.

To do it, place a tape measure just above your hip bone, and wrap it around your body. Breathe out, then check the measurement.

Measurements of more than 35 inches for a woman or more than 40 inches for a man indicate an increased risk for developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Ways to decrease abdominal fat

The good news is that you may be able to control your abdominal fat. You won’t be surprised to hear it starts with a healthy lifestyle – a proper diet and regular exercise. Here are our tips:

Diet: Avoid foods that are high in simple sugars or saturated fat. The Mediterranean Diet, which incorporates lots of olive oil, can reduce your risks. There is some evidence that suggests vegetable oil may cause fat to collect in the abdominal region, while olive oil consumption may promote fat going to less-harmful areas of the body.

Exercise: Make sure to get regular exercise. Aerobic exercise is more effective than resistance training at distributing fat to the best places in the body, but both are beneficial. In addition to redistributing fat, exercise builds lean muscle mass. As a result, a person’s BMI may not change, but there is still a health benefit.

Research to take the next step

Research is underway here at UT Southwestern to learn more about how and why fat collects in different areas of the body and what we can do to prevent or reverse this problem. We know that hormones can have an impact and some of these hormones are released from the heart.

The next step is to determine if those hormones can be modified to better control the amount of fat going to the abdominal region.

Another area of research is to determine what the optimal exercise regimen is to either reduce or redistribute fat from the belly to other locations. If we can identify a simple exercise strategy that promotes favorable fat distribution, this could have a major impact on diabetes and heart disease.

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