The Link Between Belly Fat and Cardiovascular Disease

Belly fat is a lot more dangerous than you might think. When your waistline grows, your health risks do too.

“I often say it’s not about your weight, it’s about your waist,” says internal medicine specialist Roy Buchinsky, MD, who is the director of wellness at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

That's because the larger your waist size, the more abdominal fat you have. That belly fat comes in two forms: visceral and subcutaneous.

“Visceral fat is stored deep underneath the skin near your major organs. It secretes hormones and toxins, which can lead to inflammation that develops in your body,” Dr. Buchinsky says.

“Subcutaneous fat is stored just under the skin, and is what people are talking about when they ‘pinch an inch’ of fat. It’s less dangerous than visceral fat.”

The problem with visceral fat is that it causes chronic inflammation. Researchers now believe this inflammation leads to heart disease, strokes, diabetes, some forms of cancer and other chronic conditions.

“Unlike when you have a cut and it scabs over, gut inflammation causes a complex chemical process in your body,” he says. “The ongoing inflammation can be local and deep in your abdomen, affecting the liver, pancreas and kidneys. Or, it can be systemic and travel via the blood, injuring your heart and brain.”

A Healthy Waist Circumference

Our rising obesity rate means the problem is getting worse. In Ohio, for instance, the adult obesity rate is currently 31.5 percent, up from 20.6 percent in 2000 and from 11.3 percent in 1990, according to a 2017 report, The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America. The report also says Ohio has the 19th-highest adult obesity rate in the nation.

If you want to know how you rate, many doctors now use waist circumference as a way to measure obesity. You can determine this easily, Dr. Buchinsky says, by using a measuring tape.

A woman’s waist circumference should be no more than 35 inches, and a man’s no more than 40 inches. Another tool is to take your waist-to-height ratio and divide by two. For example, if you're 5 feet, 10 inches – or 70 inches – tall, divide 70 in half. Your waist shouldn’t measure more than 35 inches.

Tips For a Healthier Lifestyle

Your swelling belly doesn't have to stop you from living the life you want, however. If you want to improve your health, Dr. Buchinsky offers these tips:

Use meals as medicine. “Meals can be medicine or they can becoming menacing and cause mayhem in our bodies,” he says.

The biggest culprits are foods that Dr. Buchinsky calls “C.R.A.P.” – or calorie-rich and processed foods. Those foods, coupled with sugar, cause an outpouring of insulin into the pancreas, which sets inflammation in motion.

“When you follow an anti-inflammatory diet, which means eating more vegetables, fruits and 100 percent whole grains, you'll have more zip and zest for life,” Dr. Buchinsky says.

Manage stress. In the workplace, job stress is estimated to cost American businesses approximately $300 billion a year due to its impact on workers’ well-being, absenteeism and productivity.

To reduce your health risks and improve your quality of life, you have to find a way to manage stress at work and home. For some people, that might mean taking a stress-reduction course, practicing yoga or mindfulness, or increasing their exercise and activity level.

Quit smoking. Smoking causes inflammation in your body, and swearing off tobacco can improve your health within days.

“Often, just changing your diet and activity level can help you reduce belly fat,” Dr. Buchinsky says. “For roughly every 10 pounds you lose, you’ll lose one inch off your gut.”

Roy Buchinsky, MD is an internal medicine specialist and the director of wellness at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

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