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The Risks of Belly Fat -- and How to Beat Them

In the late 1990s, Ginger Moore was at a health crossroads. Like many others in their early 40s, she’d packed on some extra pounds around the middle.

She’s the first to admit that she ate “for all the wrong reasons.” The biggest one: “to comfort myself emotionally after a bad day.”

But her experience with her parents was enough to tell her that she, too, was on the road to heart disease and diabetes. Moore was beginning to worry about what might be ahead for her.

Even though she wasn’t seriously overweight, when she read in the local paper about a diabetes prevention clinic, she decided to check it out. She found out she was prediabetic, and there was a good chance she’d get diabetes within the next 10 years.

That’s when she decided to lose her “spare tire.” What she didn’t know at the time was that not only would she be staving off diabetes and heart disease, she could also lower her odds of some types of cancer.

All Fat Is Not Equal

The fat that lies just below your skin in most of your body -- the kind you can grab with your hands -- is called subcutaneous fat. In your belly, it’s called visceral fat because it builds up in the spaces between and around your viscera -- internal organs like your stomach and intestines.

This visceral fat in your middle makes toxins that affect the way your body works, says Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, president of the American Diabetes Association. Among them are chemicals called cytokines that boost your chances of heart disease and make your body less sensitive to insulin, which can bring on diabetes.

Cytokines also cause inflammation, which can lead to certain cancers, says Eric Jacobs, PhD, a researcher at the American Cancer Society. In recent years, he says, scientists have uncovered links between belly fat and cancers of the colon, esophagus, and pancreas.

The Hidden Health Risk

Belly fat is sneaky. Because it’s tucked away inside your body, Dagogo-Jack says, you could have “a false sense of security” about how healthy you actually are. You may not be seriously overweight, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem.

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How can you tell if your belly fat is putting your health at risk? That part is easy. No special blood tests or scans are required. All you need is a tape measure. The size of your waist says it all.

The higher the number, the greater the danger your tummy poses to your health.

  • For women, a waist measurement of 35 inches or more is cause for concern.
  • For men, a waist measurement of 40 inches or more could spell trouble.

“If you have to move to a bigger pants size, even if your weight is considered normal for your height, or even if you haven’t noticed much weight gain, that’s an important sign it’s time to start eating better and exercising more,” Jacobs says.

A Tough Change to Make

Most of the time, that’s easier said than done. Is it worth the effort? Dagogo-Jack points to several studies that he says show the “spectacular” effects of even modest weight loss in preventing the onset of diabetes and other problems.

That should be great news for the 54 million people who have the high blood sugar levels that put them in the prediabetes category. Once you have it, type 2 diabetes is likely to follow within a decade.

Dropping belly fat can be a challenge. If you feel your efforts aren’t giving you the results you want, here are 7 ways to change things up:

Skip the fruit juice. It might seem like a healthy swap for sugary colas, but it’s not. All the fat-reducing fiber in the fruit has been removed, leaving only the pure fruit sugars that go straight to your waistline.

Eat your veggies. They should fill up at least half your plate, especially at your biggest meal. Choose more nonstarchy varieties (think leafy greens, broccoli, and beans) than their carb-filled kin (potatoes, corn, and carrots).

Go natural. Processed foods are not your friends. When you’re in a rush, it’s easy to overlook the fact that packaged foods are often loaded with trans fats, sugar, and salt -- all guaranteed to boost belly fat.

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Bulk up. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more you have, the more pounds you’ll torch, even when you’re sitting still. Do strength training exercises twice a week. That’s on top of at least half an hour a day for 5 days a week of a moderate activity like walking or biking.

Stand up and move. Despite what Grandma said, fidgeting can be good for you. Sitting all day and all night isn’t. Even if you get enough exercise during the week, it won’t do as much for you if you’re on your rear end for 8 to 9 hours a day. If you sit too much:

  • Take short breaks every hour and move your body. Stretch at your desk or take a stroll around the office.
  • Gesture while you're talking and tap your foot when you’re sitting down.
  • Skip the elevator and take the stairs.
  • When you get home, keep the TV off and do something more active.

Don’t skimp on sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and other health problems. Four or 5 hours a night just isn’t enough. Try to get between 7 and 8.

Keep your cool. The stress hormone cortisol can override your diet and workouts. When it goes through your body, fat deposits relocate to your belly area. Exercise and meditation can both be great ways to dial down your stress to nontoxic levels.

Life Beyond Belly Fat

Seventeen years after joining Dagogo-Jack’s program, Ginger Moore is still going strong. Despite hip replacements and cataracts, she still exercises every day. And she never got diabetes.

Walking, yoga, and Zumba classes help her keep her body, mind, and spirit in shape. “And I try to stay mindful about every single bite I put in my mouth. That’s the biggest challenge,” Moore says. When she craves that comfort food, she’s learned to reach for a banana instead of a cookie, or a slice of watermelon instead of ice cream.

It comes down to personal choice. “You have to decide that this is what you want to do. There’s no magic. You just have to make up your mind that you’re going to turn it around,” she says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 29, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Ginger Moore, Memphis, TN.

Harvard Health Publications: “Abdominal fat and what to do about it.”

Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, A.C. Mullins Endowed Chair in Translational Research; professor of medicine, and chief, division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, University of Tennessee Health Science Center; president, American Diabetes Association; editor, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Eric Jacobs, PhD, strategic director, pharmacoepidemiology, American Cancer Society.

Mayo Clinic: “Belly fat in women: Taking -- and keeping -- it off."

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: “8 Ways to Lose Belly Fat and Live a Healthier Life.”

Joslin Diabetes Center: “What Is Prediabetes?”

Rush University Medical Center: “Is There ‘One Trick’ to Losing Belly Fat?”

University of Chicago Hospitals: “Even Your Fat Cells Need Sleep, According to New Research.”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Physical Activity Reduces Stress.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress.”

CDC: “How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need?”

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