Belly Fat and Health

·5 min read

Talk to any real estate agent, and they will tell you that the three most important things to consider when buying property are: 1. location, 2. location and 3. location. The same can be said about body fat.

Research has long held that excess weight increases the risk of many chronic diseases and health complications such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. But the location of the excess weight on your body can also make a difference when it comes to your health.

You have likely heard about the body mass index (BMI), which is a measure of your weight in relationship to your height. For many folks, the higher the BMI, the greater your increased risk of disease. For example, a BMI of 30 puts you in the obese category, whereas a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, is considered healthy.

A healthy weight lies between these two ranges. However, in recent years, research has suggested that carrying extra fat around your middle, no matter your BMI, also increases your health risk, according to Pennsylvania-based dietitian Courtney McCormick, who is manager of clinical research and nutrition at Nutrisystem.

[READ: Best Ways to Get Rid of Belly Fat.]

Types of Body Fat

There are two kinds of body fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Think of subcutaneous fat as the "inch you can pinch." It lies just beneath the skin and is found all over your body -- your thighs, your arms, even the soles of your feet. Although too much of this type of fat can be detrimental, moderate amounts of it are necessary for life.

Visceral, or belly fat, on the other hand, is found much deeper within your abdomen and surrounds major organs, such as your heart and liver, disrupting their function and causing health issues. This type of fat is biologically active, which means it can upset the balance of several hormones and produce substances that cause inflammation in the body and increased insulin resistance which may lead to diabetes.

The best way to determine if you have too much belly fat is to measure your waist above your belly button. Women with a waist circumference of 35 inches or more and men with a waistline of 40 inches or more have unsafe levels of belly fat.

[SEE: Heart-Healthy and Easy Fish Recipes.]

Health Risks of Too Much Belly Fat

Having extra belly fat can cause the following health issues:

1. Harm your heart.

Belly fat triggers inflammation that contributes to heart disease, according to McCormick. In a study that followed some 15,000 men and women for nearly 13 years, those with the highest belly fat had more than double the risk of sudden cardiac death compared with those in the normal range.

2. Increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes.

>Research indicates a strong association between belly fat and insulin resistance -- a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, belly fat accumulation was linked to a greater risk for developing Type 2 diabetes.

3. Fog your memory.

Who knew that your waist could affect your brain? A study published in the British Medical Journal found that larger bellies in older people was a stronger predictor of poor cognitive performance than BMI. A study published in the journal Neurology also indicated that mid-waist obesity in midlife increases the risk of dementia in later years.

4. Cause a stroke.

Informally referred to as a brain attack, a stroke occurs when blood flow to a certain area of the brain is cut off, causing brain cell death. A study in the journal Stroke revealed that waistline size and other markers of belly fat may be better predictors of stroke than BMI.

In this study, participants with greater waist circumferences -- again, more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women -- had four times the risk of developing a stroke compared to people with average belly sizes. Individuals with the largest belly fat had almost eight times the risk of developing a stroke or similar condition.

5. Increase your risk of premature death.

In one of the largest and longest health studies in the world, researchers found that people with the most belly fat had nearly double the risk of dying prematurely compared to those with the least amount of belly fat. The risk of premature death increased with waist circumference, regardless of whether the subjects were overweight or not.

[SEE: How to Eat (and Exercise) to Get Six-Pack Abs.]

Tips to Get Rid of Belly Fat

So how do you get rid of belly fat? McCormick provides these three tips to target belly fat:

1. Watch how much and what you eat.

Losing weight will not only lower your total body fat, but also stubborn belly fat, states McCormick. "Since this type of fat responds well to the diet, you can minimize it by paying attention to your portions, eating plenty of fruits and veggies and sticking with whole grains and lean proteins. A lean protein diet can also help promote lean muscle mass as well as reduce belly fat," she advises. "Also limit sugary drinks and excess refined grains, such as cookies, cakes and savory snacks."

2. Get moving.

People often make the mistake of assuming that belly bulge can be reduced by doing tons of abdominal crunches and sit-ups. Alone, these exercises won't eliminate fat, claims McCormick. Engaging in regular, moderate-intensity physical activity like brisk walking at least 30 minutes a day can help you lose weight and reduce body fat. McCormick also recommends weight training.

A study published in the journal Obesity revealed that healthy men who did 20 minutes of weight training every day had less of an increase in age-related belly fat compared with men who spent the same amount of time solely engaging in aerobic activities. However, a combined approach of both weight training and aerobic activity proved most beneficial.

3. Strive for sound slumbers

Finally, focus on your ZZZs. A study from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine revealed that getting too little sleep five hours or less or too much sleep -- eight hours or more -- is associated with increased belly fat. Ensuring you get the right amount of sleep consistently may also help you beat that stubborn belly fat.

By making these few simple adjustments, you can be on your way to a trimmer waist and, more importantly, a healthier and longer life.