Most of us are concerned about not gaining too much body fat. No wonder! The statistics about obesity are frightening. Around one in three adults is obese and one in thirteen is morbidly obese. Unfortunately, when a person is obese they’re at very high risk of health problems. We know that obesity is linked with a greater risk of a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and up to thirteen forms of cancer. That doesn’t even include the mental health impact of being obese. Studies show that obese individuals have a 20% higher risk of suffering from clinical depression.
Where We Store Fat Matters
What there should be more focus on is where a person carries their excess body fat. That’s because where your store fat can impact your future risk of developing health problems. Each of us has a tendency to store more fat in certain areas. In younger women, fat storage is usually greatest around the hips and thighs. But where your body tends to store fat shifts after menopause so that more stubborn body fat ends up around the middle, in the waist and tummy area. This is mostly due to the impact of estrogen on fat distribution. When you’re young and your estrogen levels are high, fat gets directed to the lower body and as estrogen levels decline, fat storage shifts to the middle of the body.
Why does this matter? An abundance of research shows that the pattern of storing fat around the middle is more strongly linked with chronic health problems than fat stored in the hips and thighs. Now, a new study further looks again at this link. In the study, researchers recruited 200 young, healthy men and women and used imaging studies to and a DXA scan to determine their body composition and where they carried most of their fat.
Men, Women, and Fat Storage
What did they find? As expected, the women in the study had a higher body fat percentage than the men and less lean body mass relative to the men. They also had more subcutaneous fat relative to the men who carried a higher percentage of visceral or ectopic fat. This refers to deep fat that deposits in organs, such as the pelvic cavity, liver, and muscles.
In the study, men scored worse in terms of cardiometabolic risk overall, but the women were more negatively impacted by higher levels of ectopic fat, or fat deposited in organs like liver and muscle, than the men. In other words, carrying more ectopic fat may impact a woman’s cardiometabolic risk more than a man’s. Women who have low muscle mass, in addition, may be at even higher risk of illness related to cardiometabolic risk factors, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. So, deep, visceral or ectopic fat, is something no women should ignore.
How do you know if you have a dangerous level of visceral fat? After all, most of us aren’t going to spring for an imaging study to quantify the amount of ectopic fat we have. One clue is waist size. Studies show that waist size is correlated with the degree of visceral fat an individual has and with insulin resistance. Waist size rises as visceral fat deposits increase. Visceral fat is also strongly linked with inflammation, a driver of a variety of chronic health problems. In fact, visceral fat tissue releases inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that fuel inflammation. We know that inflammation is a driver of health problems, so we want to reduce chronic, low-grade inflammation as much as possible.
When should you be concerned about your waist size? For women, a waist circumference over 35 inches is a red flag, while men should be concerned as waist size rises above 40 inches. When you measure, place the tape measure just above your belly button but below your rib cage. Avoid sucking in your tummy a sit will lead to an inaccurate reading.
What if Your Waist Size is in Red Flag Territory?
If you have a waist size that suggests you have a high visceral fat storage, what can you do about it? The good news is visceral fat is easier to lose through lifestyle changes than subcutaneous fat, the loose, jiggly kind that’s not as strongly linked with health problems.
How do you shed unhealthy visceral fat? For one, cut processed carbohydrates and sugar from your diet. Refined carbs do nothing positive for your metabolic health. Instead, choose whole food carb sources, like fruits and vegetables. The fiber in these foods can help you shed visceral fat. In fact, a study of over 1,000 people found that boosting intake of soluble fiber by only 10 grams per day reduced visceral fat gain by 3.7%.
Consuming more quality protein is another way to part ways with dangerous visceral fat and, potentially, improve your metabolic health. When you consume more protein, you feel more satiated and there’s less room in your diet for refined carbs that raise your blood sugar quickly and contribute to metabolic issues.
How about exercise? Exercise is an essential weapon in the battle against visceral fat and intensity matters. A 2008 study found that high-intensity interval training beat out low-intensity training for melting away visceral fat. Weight training using heavy weights also elicits a hormonal response that helps burn visceral fat. An increase in visceral fat goes along with muscle loss, so work hard to retain as much muscle tissue as you can.
The Bottom Line
Fat that builds up around your middle and deep within your abdomen places you at higher risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. It’s not enough to know your body weight, BMI, and fat percentage, know what your waist size is as well. Fortunately, it’s easy to keep tabs on it with a tape measure. So, keep a tape measure handy and measure your waist size every few months and take action if your waist size starts to increase.
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases. “Overweight & Obesity Statistics”
Obesity Action Coalition. “Obesity and Depression”
Science Daily. “Fat distribution in women and men provides clues to heart attack risk”
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Nutrition and Metabolism. “Quality protein intake is inversely related with abdominal fat”
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