The Health Risks of Abdominal Obesity
By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
Abdominal obesity, or belly fat as it’s commonly known, can put you at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and several other conditions.
But what is it about this type of fat that’s so concerning? And how do you get rid of it?
This post highlights the dangers of abdominal obesity, the variety of health risks associated with excess belly fat, and healthy behaviors that can help you decrease the amount you have.
Difference Between Visceral Fat and Other Types
Belly fat goes by many names, but the scientific term for it is visceral fat. This type of fat is located on your abdomen and surrounds internal organs. The amount of visceral fat on a person is usually estimated by measuring waist circumference or waist-to-hip ratio.
Visceral fat is different than subcutaneous fat, which lies below your skin and can be pinched or grabbed. Although having too much subcutaneous fat can contribute to obesity, it isn’t considered as dangerous for overall health compared to visceral fat.
In fact, even people who appear thin and do not have much excess body weight other than visceral fat around their abdomen are still at an increased risk for certain health issues (1).
But why is visceral fat so dangerous?
Mainly, this type of fat releases compounds, such as free fatty acids and inflammatory proteins called cytokines, that may lead to metabolic issues in the body. Specifically, these compounds decrease the sensitivity of cells to insulin, the hormone that helps cells pick up sugar from the bloodstream and use it for energy (2).
A reduced sensitivity to insulin is also called insulin resistance. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels and related issues.
Health Risks Associated with Abdominal Obesity
Carrying extra weight in your midsection can put you at risk for a number of health conditions.
For example, visceral fat has been associated with the development of metabolic syndrome in several studies. Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of risk factors associated with poor health, including high levels of triglycerides, increased blood pressure and blood sugar, a high waist circumference, and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol (3, 4).
Since visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance, it is also closely linked to type 2 diabetes. One study that followed over 27,000 men for 13 years found that a high waist circumference was a significant and strong predictor of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, waist circumference was a stronger risk factor for diabetes than body mass index (BMI) (5, 6).
Research also shows that visceral fat is a risk factor for heart disease and some cancers. A study in 44,636 women found that those with the highest waist circumferences were roughly two times more likely to die from heart disease or cancer than those with the lowest waist circumferences (7).
What’s more, the study found that women who had high waist circumferences but normal body weights were significantly more likely to die from heart disease compared to normal-weight women without as much visceral fat. These results further suggest that “thin” people are still at risk for conditions associated with belly fat (7).
Foods Linked to Visceral Fat
Over-consumption of certain foods can increase belly fat.
This is likely because some foods may lead to inflammation in the body, provide too much rapidly absorbed sugar, and/or suppress the body’s ability to burn fat. However, the exact mechanisms by which specific foods contribute to abdominal obesity is not completely understood.
Foods that may contribute to visceral fat include:
Sugary beverages, especially sodas, energy drinks, sweetened coffee drinks, and fruit juices
Alcohol (“beer belly” is a real thing!)
Trans fats, found in fried foods, margarine, and baked goods
Candies, cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts
However, diet isn’t the only factor in gaining visceral fat. Genetics, smoking, physical inactivity, age, poor sleep, and unmanaged stress can also influence weight gain around the belly.
Ways to Lose Belly Fat
Since visceral fat is linked to several health risks, losing it can be incredibly beneficial for your overall health.
Eating a healthy diet and being physically active can help you lose weight in general, but here are a few more specific strategies that target belly fat.
Engage in cardio exercise: Try to aim for at least 30 minutes of jogging, brisk walking, biking, or swimming on most days. Adding in resistance training exercises, such as weight lifting, can also help.
Decrease the amount of refined carbs in your diet: Swap white breads and pastas for whole grain varieties, and add whole grains like brown rice, oats, farro, or quinoa to your meals.
Cut back on sugary drinks: Kicking your soda habit may be particularly effective for reducing belly fat. Here are a few tips to help you reduce your soda intake.
Increase your intake of fiber, especially soluble fiber: Foods with soluble fiber include avocados, legumes (beans, peas, lentils), barley, oatmeal, citrus fruits, and apples.
Only drink alcohol in moderation: Over-consumption of alcohol may lead to abdominal weight gain. It’s best to limit your intake to 1-2 drinks per occasion.
Incorporate protein at every meal: Lean proteins include fatty fish, poultry, legumes and soy, nuts and seeds, eggs, and low-fat dairy.
Instead of jumping into all of the above recommendations at once, try to focus on one or two goals and build from there. For instance, you can cut back on soda and add in one cardio workout per week to start, then focus on additional changes in time.
Keep in mind that losing visceral fat may take some time, but the benefits will be long-lasting! For other strategies that can help you achieve your goals, check out the variety of posts on our blog.
Note from Healthy For Life Meals: Our healthy meal plans are designed to include fresh, real foods that can help you lose weight, including belly fat. They’re loaded with fiber-rich foods and lean proteins, and taste delicious. Get started today, and let us help you reach your weight loss goals.