According to a study released last week by the Mayo Clinic, having a pot belly, even if you are otherwise of normal weight, produces a higher risk of death than being obese.
“The risk of cardiovascular death was 2.75 times higher, and the risk of death from all causes was 2.08 times higher, in people of normal weight with central obesity, compared with those with a normal body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio...
"'The high risk of death may be related to a higher visceral fat accumulation in this group, which is associated with insulin resistance and other risk factors...' says Karine Sahakyan, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiovascular research fellow at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.”
The study involved 12,785 American adults 18 and older over 14 years. In that time, 2,562 participants died, 1138 of which were cardiovascular related.
Did you note that phrase, visceral fat in the quote just above? It turns out there are two kinds of fat. Subcutaneous is the stuff that hangs over your belt, gives you a muffin top and you can squeeze between your fingers.
Visceral fat doesn't show on the outside of our bodies. It surrounds our abdominal organs and it is the kind that is really dangerous. Here is a diagram of the two kinds of fat. (Yes, the drawing is a woman's body, but the fat surrounds internal organs the same way in men.)
Visceral fat is more harmful than the fat that accumulates on hips because it can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and several kinds of cancer.
The new finding that slim people with excess belly (visceral) fat are at greater risk doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We are talking about beer bellies here too, my friends, and muffin tops that plague our later years.
Nowadays, obesity experts believe that the size of your waist is a better risk indicator for these conditions and diseases than BMI and it's easy to figure out at home.
The Mayo Clinic says that for most women, a waist measurement of 35 inches (89 centimeters) or more indicates an unhealthy concentration of belly fat. For most men, a waist measurement of 40 inches (102 centimeters) or more is considered cause for concern. Here is, according to the Mayo Clinic, how to measure:
• Place a tape measure around your bare abdomen just above your hipbone.
• Pull the tape measure until it fits snugly around you but doesn't push into your skin.
• Make sure the tape measure is level all the way around.
• Relax, exhale and measure your waist — no sucking in your belly!
That's the easy part, measuring. If you come up short – well, let's say wide - you know there is only one way to lose weight that works: burning more calories than you consume.
For many people that means low-calorie although I am surprised by how many (reputable) sources accept low-carbohydrate as an alternative. But that's a personal choice for each of us with, perhaps, input from our physicians.
Of course, you should be exercising too but unless you are running or biking several miles a day or pounding out an hour or more of high-impact aerobics daily, it won't make much difference to weight loss. I don't mean that let's you off the hook, only that it's better to use your exercise routine to tone, strengthen and maintain flexibility.
If you ask Dr. Google, you'll find all kinds of exercises promising to reduce belly fat. Mostly, they recommend abdominal exercises and they are wrong. Spot exercises such as situps, crunches, etc. are good for building specific muscles but they have little or no effect on fat in that area of the body or on the body's distribution of fat.
So there you are – the story of belly fat which, up until a few days ago I thought was all that excess stuff on my abdomen and waist. It's that too, but now I've learned it means visceral fat around my organs and that it is really not good for me. Big time.
I know this all seems like just one more damned thing to worry about. But it's really the same old, same old weight stuff with an important, new reason to keep up the good fight.