Heart; Nutrition

Why belly fat is dangerous and how to control it

Excess belly fat can be dangerous because it surrounds internal organs and puts you at greater risk for developing several kinds of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and liver problems.

Obesity is a major issue in the United States, but UT Southwestern 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 somewhat in recent years after decades of increase, belly fat is becoming more common among U.S. adults.

Belly fat is the most dangerous kind of fat because when it develops in the abdominal region and can surround internal organs. Research at UT Southwestern, which was led by my former colleague Dr. Ian Neeland, 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. Any intervention that leads to sustained weight loss will reduce belly fat, but regular exercise lowers belly fat proportionally more than it lowers overall weight, according to recent research from UT Southwestern. These results indicate exercise is a key weapon in the battle against belly fat.

More encouraging is that interventions that reduce belly fat lower the risk for heart disease and diabetes. A recent study from UT Southwestern investigators showed that a lifestyle intervention that lowered belly fat reduced the risk for the most common kind of heart failure in older adults. Therefore, even if you have an unfavorable body fat distribution, you can do something about it.

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 under way 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. It’s also possible that weight loss (bariatric) surgery will play an increasingly important role to lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems among people with excess belly fat, and research is ongoing in this area as well.

As one of the nation’s top academic medical centers, UT Southwestern offers a wide range of clinical trials aimed at improving the outcomes of patients with obesity and many types of cardiovascular disease. Learn more on our website, or make an appointment with a specialist online or by calling 214-645-800.

UT Southwestern also offers an array of options for patients seeking help through our weight loss and bariatric surgery programs.

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