Healthy Lifestyle

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The dangers of belly fat

Doctors use many different methods to assess their patients' health. Measuring the fat in a person's midsection is one indicator physicians may rely on more heavily in the future as they look to pinpoint potential health risks before they become something more serious.

Belly fat is much more than an eyesore, as it poses a serious health risk doctors are only just beginning to understand. A recent study on belly fat presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress confirmed that belly fat is far more dangerous than many people think.

That's because a large stomach may not only be comprised of subcutaneous fat, or the fat contained under the skin. Very often visceral fat, or the type of fat that surrounds internal organs, is a contributing factor to girth around the midsection. Visceral fat, also know as intra-abdominal fat, is linked to a variety of health problems, including high triglycerides, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar.

Every person has some amount of belly fat, even those with relatively flat abdominals. Visceral fat provides cushioning around the organs and is actually beneficial in small amounts. It's when visceral fat becomes too plentiful that it can pose a problem. According to Kristen Hairston, MD, an assistant professor of endocrinology and metabolism at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, visceral fat doesn't just sit dormant; it plays an active role in the body's production of a number of potentially harmful substances. Researchers are studying if visceral fat secretes inflammatory molecules in higher amounts than other types of fat. These molecules can contribute to various health ailments.

A person's ideal weight is not necessarily based on pounds on the scale. Rather, individuals should use other measurements to determine propensity for belly fat. Having a "pear shape" where the hips and thighs are larger than the waist can actually be safer than an "apple shape," where the waistline is larger.

People concerned about belly fat should use a measuring tape to measure girth and determine if there is a potential problem. Place the measuring tape around the waist at the navel. The measuring tape should be level and stretch around the midsection. Women want a waist measurement of less than 35 inches. Men should measure in at less than 40 inches. Measurements that exceed those figures may indicate excessive amounts of visceral fat. A hip-to-waist ratio measurement also can be used. This ratio should be below .85 for women and below .90 for men. Anything higher is considered "at risk," and a person should consider losing belly fat.

The only precise way to measure visceral belly fat is to get a CT scan or an MRI. However, this is expensive and may not be covered by health insurance.

It's important to note that belly fat is not a problem exclusive to those who are overweight. Although it may not be as visible, thin people can have excess visceral fat as well. This is often the result of eating a healthy diet but failing to exercise regularly.

There are ways to manage and reduce belly fat. Getting adequate exercise in conjunction with eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and managing stress can help.

Losing belly fat can improve a person's appearance and his or her overall health.