August 4, 2008
A Little Fat Can Be Good, but Not on the Tummy
What you should know
Fat can form throughout your body. We have fat under our skin (subcutaneous) and fat deep inside around our organs and abdomen (visceral fat). A small amount of fat under the skin can make you look younger and less wrinkled.
Excess fat that can be pinched can be unattractive. But this fat is not considered as dangerous as visceral fat.
Older men, overeaters or drinkers may tend to have a potbelly or "beer belly" and "love handles."
Young women tend to be pear-shaped. They build fat in the buttocks, hips, thighs and stomach. As women pass the age of 40, a decline in female hormones (estrogen) begins. Experts think a reduction in hormones may cause excess calories to become stored as fat deep inside the belly.
Too much fat deep in our body can be unhealthy. People with a large ring or apron of fat on their waists will often have fat deep in their abdomen and chest. Belly fat can be a sign of a group of risk factors known as metabolic syndrome. With metabolic syndrome, the body chemistry changes. A slowdown in metabolism means less energy is being burned and excess food is being stored as fat. This change increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
A large waist compared to your hip size can be an early sign of heart disease. Women with waists over 31 inches are considered at high risk. Men with waists that measure 37 inches or larger may have a high risk of heart disease.
Studies have shown that apple-shaped people with big waists compared to their hips are more likely to have calcium deposits in the arteries of their hearts. Belly fat might lead to increase inflammation that can cause plaque to build up in arteries. Hardening of the arteries can also lead to dementia - the loss of the ability to think clearly.
People with excess belly fat tend to have more hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), even when their weight is normal. Visceral fat is also linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and several types of cancer.
People with large bellies can have sleep problems. Some snore and wake suddenly, gasping for air (sleep apnea.)
If you become inactive, your body handles food differently. Your ability to process fatty foods can quickly change. Triglycerides, a kind of blood fat, rise quickly in inactive people. Your body may be less sensitive to insulin, which helps you convert sugar into energy.
High stress is also linked to a tendency for fat to collect in and around the belly. High-stress desk jobs can lead to even greater risk because of the need to sit for long periods.
People with excess belly fat may tend to get winded easily when they exercise. Many also have poor circulation.
Exercise and diet are very effective in reducing visceral fat. If you plan to eat a lot, you need to exercise a lot. You need to give your lungs, heart, and circulation a good workout. These exercises are called cardiovascular or aerobic exercises. Good choices can include walking fast, swimming, running and jogging. Sit-ups can build muscle tone. However, sit-ups and crunches do not give you a complete cardiovascular workout.
What you should do
Stay active to keep from building hidden belly fat. It is wise to manage your weight with aerobic exercises.
Don't blame your belly fat on genetics. Diet, exercise and lifestyle have more influence on fat buildup than heredity.
Consider your body shape, not just your weight. If you have a lot of excess belly fat, you might also have a lot of fat around your internal organs. You could be at higher risk for heart disease and other health problems. Eat a healthful diet of fruits, vegetables, skim milk, and low-fat protein foods. Reduce the saturated fats and transfats in your diet.
Concentrate on your overall condition. Your circulation, your breathing, and your weight are all important factors to improve. Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three to five times each week. You might find that reducing belly fat is easier when you walk 10,000 steps a day. Get a pedometer and count how many steps you take every day.
If disability forces you to be inactive, you should do your best to avoid high-fat diets, transfats, and starchy, salty and sugary foods. There is usually some form of exercise that you can still do.
Skip late night eating. Many people go straight to bed after a late meal or snack. This can put a lot of sugar into your body without a chance to burn it with movement and exercise. The excess sugar can lead to more fat.
Stop eating junk food. You can survive without dessert, potato chips or a second bowl of buttered popcorn. Make sure that the food that you eat is not giving you empty calories without the vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Avoid starches (carbohydrates) with refined flours. Doughnuts, cakes, biscuits and white bread are unhealthful compared to whole grain breads, fruits, oatmeal and vegetables.
Reduce your alcohol. While one glass of red wine with an early dinner might be OK, beer, cocktails, and wine can mean empty calories. Alcohol has calories but lacks nutrients.
If you have a big belly, get regular check-ups to see if you have diabetes. Your metabolism can change over time.
Ask your primary care provider to measure your waist size and your triglyceride level. If both your waist size and triglycerides are too high, you could be at increased risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Check with your doctor or care provider before starting an extensive exercise program.
For more information
Go to healthymemphis.org/links for more about the risks of belly fat.
Family Health . Take Charge! is provided by the Healthy Memphis Common Table: healthymemphis.org. This article supports the care and advice of your doctor. Talk to your care provider about any health condition or before starting new treatments.
Talk to the expert
We're having an online conversation on our Healthy Memphis blog with Teresa Dawson, administrative director of the Baptist Heart Institute. Dawson will answer questions about ways to protect your heart and health and the dangers of belly fat.
Go to commercialappeal.com/ healthblog to submit a question or comment, or to follow the discussion.
Family Health Take Charge
People with central obesity ("belly fat") have more health problems as they age. (For chart, see microfilm)
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