You step on the scale and are pleased when it shows you weigh in at ideal body weight for your height. That’s reassuring, but if you’re carrying too much fat around the middle – the dreaded belly fat, your health risks may be no different than someone who’s obese. According to a new study, where you store your fat matters when it comes to your health.
Belly Fat, Fat Storage and the Risk for Health Problems
The study involved almost 13,000 adults of all ages who were part of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The average age of the participants was 44 years old and included an almost equal number of men and women. Researchers divided the participants into groups based on BMI and waist-to-hip ratio and followed them for 14 years. They were looking at the rate of death in each group and their incidence of heart death.
The results? Adults who had a high waist-to-hip ratio had double the death rate and a 2.75 times greater risk of heart disease relative to those with a normal waist-to-hip ratio – even if they had a normal body weight. The fat you carry around your middle counts in terms of health even if you’re not overweight or obese.
Why Waist and Belly Fat is So Harmful
There are two types of fat – subcutaneous fat that’s more superficial and fat called visceral fat that lies deeper in the pelvic cavity and isn’t as visible. It’s this type of fat that’s linked with health problems like heart disease. One sign that you have too much visceral fat is a high waist-to-hip ratio. In women, a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.8 or below is considered healthy, while in men a ratio of greater than 1.0 is a risk factor for health problems. To determine your waist-to-hip ratio, measure your waist circumference at the narrowest part of your waistline. Then measure your hip circumference at the widest part of your buttocks. Divide waist circumference by hip circumference to get your ratio.
Why is Waist-to-Hip Ratio Such an Important Measurement of Health and Risk?
Research shows that visceral fat isn’t just a storage organ. Visceral fat functions much like an endocrine gland by producing chemicals that increase inflammation and contribute to insulin resistance. This low-grade inflammation and reduced insulin sensitivity increases the risk of health problems like metabolic syndrome, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Decreasing Visceral Fat and Improving Waist-to-Hip Ratio
The best way to reduce visceral abdominal fat and improve your waist-to-hip ratio is through exercise and diet. Are you eating a diet rich in processed carbs? That’s part of the problem. Reduce processed carbohydrates that are rapidly absorbed and increase insulin levels and replace them with fiber-rich carbohydrates from whole food sources like vegetables and whole grains.
What about fats? Eliminate trans-fat from your diet, reduce saturated fat from dairy and animal products. Replace them with healthier fat sources like the monounsaturated fats in olive oil, avocados and nuts. In terms of exercise, high-intensity exercise is best for shedding visceral belly fat as opposed to more sustained moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. If you’re doing moderate-intensity cardio, throw in some high-intensity intervals where you raise your heart rate to 85% to 95% of your maximal heart rate for short periods of time.
The Bottom Line?
Even if you’re normal weight, your waist-to-hip ratio matters. Measure it and make sure your ratio doesn’t put you at higher risk for health problems like heart disease. If so, it’s time to make some changes. Do it for your health.
Diabetes. April 2007. Vol. 56, No. 4.
Science Daily. “Normal Weight Individuals with Belly Fat at Highest CVD Risk”
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Nov;40(11):1863-72.