Why Belly Fat is Dangerous to Your Health

What exactly is belly fat, the different types of belly fat and how it is dangerous to your health.

There are different types of belly fat and it can impact your health in many negative ways.

Are you an apple or are you a pear. Maybe you’re a cantaloupe or a string bean. Doctors used to ask us if we smoked, ate a healthy diet or exercised regularly. Now their first question is what fruit we look like and we are now being categorized as fruits.

What is Your Shape?

Everyone stores fat in their body and we all store it differently and in different spots. Some fat is good and healthy for us. It protects our body and can keep us warm in the winter. There are places on the body that fat does get stored normally, the hips, thighs, arms and neck to name a few. But the belly is not a good place to store fat.

A pear shaped person is one who would store most of their fat around the hips and their belly will not be that big. If you picture a pear, this is what they mean. An apple is someone who would store fat in the belly. Being an apple shaped person is not healthy.

The Two Types of Belly Fat

There are two different types of belly fat, and which type the belly fat is, is determined by where in the belly the fat is stored. The stomach has a band of muscles called the abdominal muscles or abs. On which side of these abdominal muscles the fat is mainly stored determines what type of fat it is.

Subcutaneous fat is the fat that we mainly see as belly fat. This fat is stored on the outside of the abdominal muscles. It is just under the first layer of skin or epidermis. This is the fat that the old cereal commercial had you pinching an inch to see if you were overweight.

Visceral fat is the fat that is stored inside the abdominal muscles and is more dangerous to our health. This fat is close to and in and around the organs and also contributes to the belly fat we see.

Why Belly Fat is Unhealthy

Visceral fat is more dangerous to our health because it is believed that this fat contributes to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, sleep apnea, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, colon cancer, higher triglyceride levels and coronary heart disease. In other words, visceral fat can lead to what is known as the metabolic syndrome or syndrome X.

A study of 359,000 people in 10 European countries and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that belly fat or excess weight around the abdominal area doubled the risk of death from numerous disease’s including cancer, stroke and heart disease [1].

Some doctors believe that the body’s immune system treats this visceral fat like it would an invader, like a flu virus or bacterial infection, and sends out invader fighting cells to attack this invader. The immune system doesn’t defeat the visceral fight, so it continues to send more immune system cells like cytokines into the blood stream. This causes inflammation-producing cells to flow through the blood stream, which can cause diseases related to inflammation.

The more fat, the more fat cells. Fat cells release a large amount of fatty acids into the body, which causes problems with insulin metabolism. This causes a person to lose sensitivity to insulin. When someone becomes insulin resistant, the body has to pump more and more insulin into the blood stream. A condition known as pre-diabetes, which can lead to type II diabetes.

Being Skinny and Still Fat

New research is showing that even though some people are skinny, have a normal waist size and BMI numbers can still have too much visceral fat. These people do not have the apple size or the big belly as their warning sign. BMI doesn’t give any indication of where the fat is being stored. An MRI can show a person if they have this hidden visceral fat. Skinny people who are usually at risk for having the visceral fat are people who control their weight through diet with little or no exercise. Being active and exercise is very important to keeping bad fat out of our bodies.

How To Measure Belly Fat

There are different ways to find out how much fat you have and what kind it is. Skinfold caliper’s can be used to measure the overall body fat, but the accuracy of calipers is only fair.

The waist to hip ratio (WHR) is a number by measuring your waist just above your hip bone and then measuring your hips. You divide the waist by the hip. For example a waist of 36” and hips of 33” would be a waist to hip ratio of 1.09. Some charts say a WHR above .90 for men and above .80 for women puts them at a higher risk for heart disease.

At this time, the American Heart Association has said that the BMI number is more accurate and doesn’t recommend using the WHR [2], but that waist circumference is still important. According to Dr. James Rippe of Tufts University, you should consider losing weight if your waist if more than 37” for men and 31.5” for women, regardless of height [3].

The New England Journal of Medicine study recommends using the BMI readings, waist circumference and waist to hip ratio together to determine your risks from visceral belly fat. A person with a low or healthy BMI number but with a larger waist measurement will be at a higher risk for these diseases.

There is a blood test that could determine if a person has the more dangerous visceral belly fat. Studies found that people with high amounts of this belly fat have much more retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4) in their blood [4].

There are not any contradictions in the studies. Belly fat and in particular visceral belly fat is dangerous to our health and is one of the first steps or symptoms to worse illnesses and disease.

© 2010 Sam Montana

Helpful Articles:

How to Lose Belly Fat: Exercise Matters

Diets and More Diets: How to Lose Belly Fat


Note: Most BMI calculators are for adults. Use this BMI calculator for children and teens.

Note: When you read articles and studies, you will also see the word adipose. That also means fat or fat tissue.

[1] New England Journal of Medicine

[2] American Heart Association

[3] Yale Medical Group

[4] BBC report - Blood test for RBP4


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