Muffin top. Love handles. Jelly belly. They're all cute names for one thing: abdominal fat. But an ever-expanding waistline can be a sign of something not so cute, and that's visceral fat—a dangerous kind of fat that can lead to a number of serious conditions.
"People tend to think of belly fat as an appearance problem, but it's really a medical problem," says Michael F. Roizen, M.D., chief wellness officer at Cleveland Clinic and co-author of You on a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management. Here's why—and what you can do about it.
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Most fat in our bodies is subcutaneous—the kind you can pinch right beneath your skin. Visceral fat lies deep within the abdomen, surrounding our organs. Too much of it, and your organs start to get squeezed.
Visceral fat, in particular, is metabolically active, producing hormones, fatty acids and other chemicals. And because of the way visceral fat wraps around our organs, those substances can spread to the heart, liver, pancreas and other nearby neighbors.
This process leads to insulin resistance, making it harder for your body to process sugar. It's also linked to chronic, low-level inflammation, a major cause of many diseases. The result: A higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer (especially breast and colorectal), dementia, depression and other serious, potentially life-threatening diseases and conditions. All thanks to visceral fat.
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Unlike the subcutaneous fat you can squish and squeeze, visceral fat is hidden. So how can you tell if you have too much? "It's pretty easy, actually," Roizen says.
You want to take figure out the size of your waist to get a good measurement on your visceral fat and your risk. Get a tape measure, circle your waist at the belly button, and suck in. If you're a man and measure over 39 inches, or a woman and measure over 36 inches, it's probably time to start losing.
That's where the gender differences pretty much end, Roizen says. Big bellies are more common in men than in women, who up until menopause tend to store fat in their hips and butt. Still, visceral fat can be a problem for anyone—even if you don't have a lot of flab to grab. And a widening waist is usually a telltale sign.
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There's a reason it's called the middle-aged spread. When it comes to whittling our waists, aging is not on our side.
"We decrease our metabolic rate and our ability to break down insulin resistance as we get older," Roizen says.
Just as you can't spot-reduce a double chin or jiggly thighs, you can't target visceral fat for weight loss. But here's the good news: some experts say visceral fat is easier to lose than stubborn belly fat. These five tips can help.
It's easy to head for the cheese dip when we feel stressed—and start packing on pounds. But constant tension may up your visceral fat, even if you don't gain weight. A Yale University study found that premenopausal women who were not overweight but were under daily stress tended to have more abdominal fat and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. If your stress is out of control, find healthy ways to lower it. "Meditating is a great way to decrease weight, because it reduces stress," says Roizen.
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Research suggests getting too much or too little sleep can add visceral fat over time. Aim for six or seven hours of sleep a night. One study, which focused on men and women under age 40, found that those who slept less than five or more than eight hours a night had significantly more visceral fat over five years.
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Just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day can make a difference. "I see lots of patients who reduce their waist size by eating less and walking," Roizen says. Add strength-training to your cardio routine to burn visceral fat even more. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that as little as 80 minutes a week of aerobic or resistance training helped trim visceral fat—and kept it off even a year later.
It's no surprise that smoking can kill you. But if you're overweight, the risk is even worse. While it's hard to untangle all the factors—poor diet, lack of exercise, and other risky behaviors count, too—studies show smoking is linked to increased visceral fat and insulin resistance.
Fill up on healthy foods: fruits and veggies, whole grains and lean protein. Don't forget soluble fiber, the kind found in oats, beans and lentils and some fruits.In one study, participants gained 3.7 percent less visceral fat over time for every 10 grams of soluble fiber they ate each day. Reduce your added sugar intake and go easy on alcohol, too—it can add to visceral fat.