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Fat 101: Belly Fat Buildup - Out of Sight but Shouldn’t Be Out of Mind

By Martha Michael

Belly Fat Health Risks

The shapely beauty in your book club or the svelte guy at your workplace may look like the picture of health, but looks can be deceiving. Carrying your weight in all the right places gets you attention; gaining it in the wrong place can mean there’s a growing risk of disease. You can be relatively fit, but if you’re getting thicker at the waistline, there may be an accumulation of visceral fat that affects your internal organs and leads to serious diseases.

Visceral Fat Defined

Visceral adipose tissue, or VAT, also known as belly fat, has been recognized as a serious risk to cardiovascular health, according to the American Heart Association. When fat accumulates at your waistline, you have a greater chance of developing heart disease, even when your body mass index is within normal range.

Nearly 3 billion people across the globe are considered overweight or obese, which is problematic on a large scale. Specifically, carrying extra weight in your midsection is harmful because it indicates the presence of fat around organs such as your heart or liver, which adds to your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Medical experts gauge your level of body fat using a formula comparing the circumference of your waist to your height, which can effectively predict a person’s risk of death from a cardiovascular event. Healthcare visits that include abdominal measurements provide diagnoses that otherwise may be missed as some patients within a healthy weight limit have dangerous levels of belly fat.

An article by the Mayo Clinic outlines the difference between subcutaneous fat, which lies just under your skin, and visceral fat, which surrounds internal organs. People tend to pay attention to fat that’s closer to the surface, the kind you can pinch with your fingertips. It’s wise to become aware of visceral fat because it plays a role in dangerous health conditions including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Respiratory problems

However, you should be aware that a flat tummy doesn’t mean visceral fat hasn’t enveloped your internal organs such as your heart; it’s referred to as TOFI, thin outside fat inside. But belly fat is a good indicator that you’ve got visceral fat, and a crude tool to prove it is to measure yourself at your navel; if it exceeds 35 inches around the waist in women or 40 inches in men (31.5 and 35.5 if you’re of Asian descent), then you’ve probably got visceral fat.

Visceral Fat and Women’s Health

You may not notice the presence of visceral fat until your waistline begins to grow larger, which post-menopausal women experience as they age, says an article on Eat This, Not That! Females experience a drop in hormone levels that are responsible for metabolism, so it’s challenging, but you can reduce the effects of visceral fat through lifestyle changes.

As they age, women lose muscle mass and gain fat in their midsection. While a healthy diet and proper exercise are part of the solution, a buildup of body fat can go unnoticed if their weight stays the same.

Mental hygiene can also play a part in reducing a buildup of visceral fat in women.

"Women with greater abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress," says Elissa S. Epel, PhD, lead investigator on a study at Yale's psychology department. "Greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat."

Men’s Health and Visceral Fat

Though women typically have a higher body mass index than men, members of both sexes have an increase in body fat as they age. When you compare pre-menopausal women with men, the placement of fat in the body differs for each gender, according to an article in Frontiers in Physiology. Men accumulate visceral fat in the abdomen, becoming apple-shaped, while women tend to gain weight in the hips, thighs, and buttocks, making them pear-shaped. Sometimes referred to as android obesity, excessive waistline fat is easier to measure in men than women.

The term “beer belly” is not synonymous with an accumulation of visceral fat in the abdomen. While alcohol consumption may contribute to overall body weight, beer is not specifically responsible for a man’s android obesity or bulging stomach. Because men produce more chylomicrons, which carry fatty acids and cholesterol, their bellies grow larger when both visceral fat and abdominal subcutaneous fat accumulate.

Studies show a link between android obesity and insulin resistance, as well as other metabolic disorders. It may lead to hypertension or the flux of fatty acids that can damage the liver and pancreas. For both obese men and women, the presence of visceral fat is a strong predictor of mortality.

Fighting Belly Fat

Like addressing problems with weight gain in other parts of the body, you improve your health by making lifestyle choices that help you maintain an advisable body size. An article in Healthline offers tips for reducing your chance of accumulating harmful belly fat:

  • Avoid eating food with trans fats
  • Eat plenty of fiber
  • Limit sugary foods
  • Reduce stress
  • Cut down on carbohydrates
  • Get cardio exercise
  • Do resistance training
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat fatty fish
  • Drink apple cider vinegar
  • Do intermittent fasting
  • Drink green tea

Weight loss of any kind requires time, effort, and commitment, and trimming belly fat to reduce health risks is no different from trimming down for cosmetic reasons. Paying more attention to your diet and keeping up an active fitness program will contribute to maintaining a healthy weight and reduce the chance your organs will be surrounded by layers of visceral fat.

While you may easily monitor the health of your skin, which you can see, and address aches and pains you can feel, it’s easy to overlook less noticeable conditions. Putting effort into your six-pack or other means of creating an eye-catching physique is fine, but make sure you don’t ignore a growing waistline that can signal the development of a silent killer like visceral fat. In this case, the adage is true: It’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside.

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