Fat can show up in all sorts of places. It can strain the seat of a pair of jeans, hang over a belt, or make a wedding ring nearly impossible to remove. In these thin-conscious times, many people worry about every extra ripple and bulge, no matter where it shows up. Doctors, however, see things differently. When it comes to your health, there’s one place where fat is especially dangerous.
Fat around the midsection is a strong risk factor for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancers, says Samuel Klein, MD, the director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.
Despite many years of studies — and an overabundance of potential study volunteers — experts aren’t exactly sure why people with large midsections are such frequent targets for the disease.
They do know that fat cells regulate metabolic functions, and many experts believe fat cells in the belly release unusually large amounts of fatty acids, which can wreak havoc on a person’s blood sugar and insulin metabolism.
What is belly fat exactly?
The fat that accumulates in your midsection is known as visceral fat. Th is the fat that is rooted in your abdomen and surrounds essential organs, like the liver, stomach, and intestines. In contrast, subcutaneous fat is the pinchable fat that lies right below the skin, typically on the thighs, but, and, yes, also your belly area.
All fat around your belly the “bad” kind of visceral fat, it can be difficult to know from just looking, the difference between subcutaneous and visceral fat can only see with an MRI or CT scan. In general, people who carry weight around their mid-sections tend to have more visceral fat. In contrast, those who have more fat around their lower-body tend to have more subcutaneous fat.
From the outside, it’s nearly impossible to tell how much of each type of fat you have. Two measurements are used in the clinical setting to assess visceral fat—waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio.
Ideally, women should have a waist circumference of fewer than 35 inches and a waist-to-hip ratio (which you get by dividing hip circumference by waist circumference) of less than 0.8, according to the World Health Organization. A more significant number than these standards may indicate a higher percentage of visceral fat. (Related: Why Body Recomposition Is the New Weight Loss)
Although it seems a bit crazy that such a simple measurement could be a gold standard for measuring central obesity, there is research that shows it’s a better indicator of life expectancy than BMI.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admits that BMI isn’t a perfect tool either, so understand that no one metric is the end all be all for measuring health. Because of this, doctors often look for several cardiometabolic risk factors, such as high triglycerides, elevated waist-to-hip ratio, and increased blood pressure to determine your health status.
What are the dangers of belly fat?
The reason I hate the term “belly fat” is because it puts so much emphasis on aesthetics rather than what it means for your health. The truth is that having too much visceral fat has some serious health implications.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association observed more than 500,000 adults and found that women who carried more weight from fat in their abdominal area had a 10 to 20 percent greater risk of heart attack than women who took fat evenly throughout their body.
Visceral fat is located near the portal vein in the abdomen and carries blood from the abdominal area to the liver. This vein’s location has resulted in something the medical community calls the “portal theory,” which suggests that an abundance of visceral fat exposes the liver to fatty acids and pro-inflammatory markers.
In turn, this exposure promotes the development of insulin resistance and blood lipids, which are both linked with higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased risk for pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. In simpler terms, more visceral fat means a higher risk of heart conditions and metabolic diseases.
To prevent these health risks, most healthcare professionals recommend losing weight, but there’s one big problem.
Can you target belly fat?
Quite simply, no. You can’t strategically lose weight around just your belly (or any part of the body for that matter). Why? In large part, genetics. Everyone’s body is different, and the way you gain and lose weight is going to be different from someone else’s.
Researchers have sought to prove this point. One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that even after six weeks of intense ab workouts, participants still didn’t reduce their belly fat.
However, they did strengthen the ab muscles underneath the subcutaneous fat, but there was one thing missing to see the subcutaneous belly fat reduction: nutrition. Successfully reducing both subcutaneous and visceral belly fat comes down to a combination of proper diet and simple exercise to shed the fat on top of the muscle.
What this all translates to is overall weight loss—this is the only way you can achieve the “belly fat” reduction you’re after because, well, you would have reduced fat in all other parts of your body at the same time. (This “Ultimate Plan to Lose Belly Fat” shares a diet and exercise combo that can help you get there.)
Are there such things as belly fat burning foods?
I hate to burst another bubble, but there aren’t any foods that miraculously burn calories or melt away fat. There is a long-standing myth that eating certain foods, like celery juice, ginger, green tea, cayenne pepper (the list goes on), will cause your body to target and burn belly fat. It just simply isn’t true. (However, spicy foods might be the secret to a longer life.)
That said, there is limited research that shows how certain foods interact with metabolism, but the claims that these foods burn fat, and specifically belly fat, is blown way out of proportion. For example, green tea contains EGCG, a compound that believes in promoting fat oxidation or using fat as a fuel source.
One study found that drinking three cups of green tea in combination with a reduction in calories may result in weight loss, but the study did not touch upon belly fat, specifically.
Research on capsaicin (the compound found in hot peppers) shows that it may speed up your metabolism, but most studies use a vast, inedible and unrealistic amount of cayenne pepper in one serving.
What’s more, another study used a reasonable amount (about 1/2 teaspoon) of cayenne pepper found that it only alters metabolism ever so slightly, resulting in burning about ten calories. So definitely not enough to magically shed pounds around your stomach.
So, what should you do about belly fat, if anything?
A bulge in the belly is a wake-up call. If you can trim down your midsection, you’ll go a long way toward preventing the health problems associated with belly fat. A healthy lifestyle can ward off fat from top to bottom, and especially, the middle.
When you lose weight, your body will make getting rid of belly fat a top priority. If you manage to lose just 5 to 10 percent of your overall body weight, you can reduce the hazardous layer of belly fat by as much as 30 percent. If stress is a factor in your buildup of extra weight, incorporating some relaxation techniques may be useful as well.
Unfortunately, if you’re concerned about the amount of fat you have around the middle, you won’t find peace of mind in a cosmetic surgeon’s office.
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Klein and colleagues dashed any hopes of a quick fix. The study found that women who had about 30 percent of their body fat suctioned off didn’t move any closer to avoiding diabetes or heart disease.
Specifically, the procedure didn’t lower blood pressure or improve their response to insulin. “We removed billions of fat cells, but we didn’t change the size of the fat cells that remained,” the doctor says. It’s possible, he adds, that it’s the size of fat cells — not their sheer number — that has an impact on health as abdominal obesity.
If you’re ready to banish your excess belly fat, schedule an appointment with your doctor. The two of you can come up with the best, healthiest strategy for weight loss. The most successful approaches typically combine a healthy, low-calorie diet that’s also low in saturated fat and sugar with regular exercise. As the Duke University study showed, exercise alone can be enough to trim stomach fat.
A perfectly flat stomach may not be within your reach, but a healthier body certainly is.
- Focus less on how you look and more on how you feel. Rather than getting hung up on how your skinny jeans fit, think about how you feel in your skin. If you have plenty of energy and love your body for what it can do for you, then you’re doing something right. (Related: This Influencer Wants You to Know You’re So Much More Than What You See In the Mirror)
- Think about your health rather than your weight. Belly fat can be dangerous, so it’s not something you should entirely dismiss. If blood markers like your cholesterol or triglycerides are high or you have aches and pains from carrying extra weight, it may be time for a lifestyle change. Trying to lose weight, focus on the journey to a healthier you, the numbers on the scale or your waist measurement. Practice proper nutrition and exercise because it makes you feel good.
- Reduce the “belly fat” noise. Think about who you choose to follow on social media or what sites and publications you tend to read. If you follow influencers or read articles that continuously talk about flat abs or detoxes, it’s time to hit ‘follow.’