When it comes to belly fat, most of us are concerned if we can pinch a little flab around our midsection or have trouble buttoning our pants. But the belly fat we can't see--called visceral fat--has far greater consequences for our health.
"Around the abdomen, fat can be stored right under the skin; that's called subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is stored much deeper, around the organs in that area of the body, such as the liver and intestines," says Monica Ferguson, MD, an internal medicine physician at St. Joseph Health Medical Group. "Visceral fat produces substances that can increase blood cholesterol levels, cause inflammation and affect how the body processes insulin. This can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes."
Although visceral fat isn't visible, waist size can be a good clue as to whether we have too much of it. Generally, women with a waist size of 35 inches or above and men whose waist size is 40 inches or higher are considered in the danger zone for visceral fat. "We can be genetically predisposed to having too much visceral fat, and it can also be caused by poor diet and lack of exercise," Dr. Ferguson says.
But diet and exercise can also be used to decrease visceral fat, Dr. Ferguson adds. "The good thing about visceral fat is that we can shed it by eating healthy food low in calories and fat, and doing regular physical activity. With regard to diet, the American Diabetes Association has a good rule of thumb: fats should make up no more than 30 percent of our daily calorie intake. The focus should be on unsaturated fats (such as those in nuts and olive oil), while saturated and trans fats (think red meat, butter and partially hydrogenated oils) should be kept to a minimum. With exercise, beneficial changes can come simply with 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, five days a week. There is good evidence that it reduces cardiovascular risk. You'll get even better results with more vigorous workouts that combine aerobic activity and strength training."
Unsure about your waist size? You can use a tape measure to get the number, measuring at the navel, and pulling the tape so it's snug but not cutting into the skin--and relaxing the stomach so you're not sucking it in. "You can also ask your doctor to measure it during your next appointment; that way, if the number is high, you can talk with your physician about a strategy to whittle off the fat," Dr. Ferguson says.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.