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The Risks of Belly Fat

Lose belly fat to reduce your risks for heart disease, cancer, and more.
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WebMD Feature

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 get sidetracked with the cutesy names, however. Belly fat (aka 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," says Lewis Kuller, MD, DPH, professor and past chair of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

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, he explains.

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, Kuller explains.

Indeed, belly fat is a key 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.

Belly Fat: Men's vs. Women's Risks

Men tend to collect more belly fat than women, and it starts early in life. "In adolescence and postadolescence, men start collecting abdominal fat," Kuller tells WebMD. "It's one of the reasons men have more coronary disease than women."

In one study, men with excess belly fat and a large waist were most at risk for what researchers call "all-cause mortality" -- early death from any cause. And because belly fat can trigger cardiovascular problems, a large belly has also been linked to erectile dysfunction in men over age 60.

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