belly fat may seem more like a cute aesthetic concern than a potentially catastrophic health threat. But experts are clear: It’s definitely the latter. Belly fat—also known as visceral fat or abdominal fat—has unique properties that can literally hijack your body’s most crucial organs and seriously compromise your health. A doctor told us why, and how to tell if you have excess abdominal fat. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
There are two types of body fat: subcutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (which lies deep within the abdomen, under muscle and around organs). Some people may seem otherwise thin but have a lot of visceral fat. That’s dangerous. “Visceral fat cells secrete hormones, much like other endocrine organs in the body such as your thyroid or pancreas,” says Spencer Kroll, MD, Ph.D., FNLA, a New Jersey-based internal medicine physician. Hormones secreted from visceral fat have far-reaching effects on other tissues in the body.
Visceral fat makes up only a small proportion of body fat, but it’s a major contributor to many health problems. “People with large amounts of visceral fat have higher incidences of diabetesabnormal cholesteroland heart disease,” says Kroll. “Most critically, the hormones secreted from this fat cause more inflammation and increase coagulation [blood clotting] in the body. Higher levels of visceral fat are also seen in patients with dementia, asthma as well as breast and colon cancer.”
You can keep track of your level of abdominal fat by measuring your waist circumference, advises Kroll. Measure your waist circumference at your belly button. “This will provide more information than the simple subcutaneous fat that you think may be making you look fat. It’s a much better indicator of visceral fat than the number of pounds on the scale.”
Experts say you’re at increased risk of health problems from visceral fat if your waist measures more than 35 inches if you’re a woman, and more than 40 inches if you’re a man.
“Increasing aerobic exercise to at least 30 minutes a day can effectively burn and reduce visceral fat,” says Kroll. Unfortunately, you can’t spot-reduce. “Targeted exercise for the abdomen does not seem to help with the reduction of visceral fat,” he adds. “Sit-ups and crunches are not as effective as sweating and getting your heart racing.”
Certain foods seem to have a greater contribution to fat formation, says Kroll. “Trans fats, which are seen in hydrogenated vegetable oils, and fructose-sweetened foods are particular culprits. Simple carbohydrates also lead to more fat accumulation. Your body packs away any additional unnecessary consumed carbohydrates as fat and stores it around your organs.”
His advice: Read Nutrition Facts labels regularly. Some foods touted as low-fat are packed with carbohydrates and other added sugars. Reducing “bad fats,” simple carbohydrates and processed foods—while consuming protein, good fats and complex carbs—can help you reduce visceral fat.
“Sleep habits are important,” says Kroll. “There is definitely a sweet spot for the proper amount of sleep to minimize visceral fat.” Studies have found that people who sleep five hours or less a night accumulate significantly more visceral fat, and young people who sleep more than eight hours nightly also have more visceral fat. Experts advise getting seven to nine hours for better health overall. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.