Belly Fat and Your Heart Health

Belly fat is a nuisance. It makes clothes fit tight. It doesn’t go away easily. And it’s bad for your health. For most of us, we tend to focus on how to lose our belly fat for purposes of looking and feeling better. There are countless articles on tips for losing belly fat or the best foods to fight belly fat. Belly fat, though, is not just a problem for vanity. Outside medical journals and published studies, there are fewer articles on what belly fat means for your health. Fewer even which focus on your heart health.

“Belly fat, also known a central adiposity or abdominal obesity, represents the least desirable form of body fat distribution and is a marker for increased health risk,” explains Oklahoma Heart Institute cardiologist, Dr. Kamran Muhammad. “People with this type of obesity are at increased risk for heart disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension (high blood pressure) and dyslipidemia (undesirable cholesterol levels).”

New research finds that belly fat plays an active role in our health and not just for those considered obese. In fact, a recent study finds people who are within a normal weight range who have belly fat, or central obesity, are at almost three times greater risk of dying from heart disease that those of a normal body weight without belly fat. Additionally, they are twice as likely to die of any cause if they have belly fat. Belly fat can be more harmful for those of normal body weight than for people who are overweight or obese, according to this new study.

What Defines Belly Fat?

“A simple and basic way of assessing belly fat or central adiposity is to perform a measurement of waist circumference,” Dr. Muhammad says.  The test, performed annually at your doctor’s office will determine if you are near or beyond the normal waist circumference threshold.  “A desirable waist circumference in men is < 40 inches, and in women is < 35 inches,” Dr. Muhammad says. “These thresholds are often lowered in people of Asian descent.”

How Does Belly Fat Increase Your Risk of Dying?

Belly fat increases insulin resistance, a condition in which the body does not use the insulin it produces properly. This can put tremendous pressure on the pancreas to produce the amount of insulin the body needs, leading to the development of diabetes. 


With regards to people who have a normal body weight, central obesity typically means they have less fat in other areas of their body where the fat can be protective, such as hips and legs.  They also tend to have less muscle mass.  Conversely, people who are overweight or obese are more likely to have fat distributed throughout their body where it can be protective.  Typically they also have more muscle mass than normal weight people with central obesity.

This new study sheds light on a population who may have believed they were in better health than they actually are. “Waist circumference, a measure of belly fat, can go beyond just your body weight and body mass index in defining your risk from obesity,” Dr. Muhammad explains.  “That is, even if your body weight and body mass index do not put you in the highest risk category, a suboptimal waist circumference on top of those measures of obesity may.”

For an apple body shape of a normal weight range, the distribution of weight is focused in the area near and around the heart. The layer of fat under the skin, or subcutaneous fat is the fat we see, but is not the fat that is damaging to the heart. Visceral fat is the fat we don’t see, which is closer to the organs. Although some visceral fat helps protect the organs, too much can damage them as well. In previous studies, researchers have found visceral fat is the fat that causes inflammation and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).  Concentrating visceral fat around the heart triples the risk for a heart attack for those who others may think they are perfectly healthy due to their normal body weight.

How Can I Eliminate My Belly Fat?

Getting rid of belly fat is not a quick fix.  Proper diet, regular exercise, restful sleep and reducing stress can all help to reduce your belly fat. Talk with your doctor about the right course of action to address your body fat and determine what lifestyle changes are best for you. Reducing belly fat, even if it is as little as 10 pounds overall lost, can decrease your risk for developing diabetes or having a heart attack or stroke.