Watch Your Waist

Watch Your Waist

By Laird Harrison, CPT and Will Workman, MD

Which is worse: Thunder thighs, chicken wings, a bubble butt or a beer belly? If you guessed “beer belly” you’re on top of the latest research.

A study published this month by researchers at Harvard and the University of Michigan has highlighted the risk of too much visceral fat. Visceral fat pads your internal organs where you can’t see it. Subcutaneous fat hangs around just under your skin. It’s the jiggly stuff that you can grab between a forefinger and thumb.

“Most people are concerned about the weight they can visually see,” one of the researchers, Venkatesh L. Murthy of the University of Michigan, told us over the phone. “That weight, while important cosmetically, doesn’t have a big effect.”

Better than BMI

But visceral fat can show up in one key way: it swells the abdomen.

Murthy and his colleagues aren’t the first to point their fingers at visceral fat. In recent years, more and more researchers have reached similar conclusions. People with a lot of visceral fat are more likely to get diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. People with a lot of subcutaneous fat don’t face the same risks.

That’s the reason it’s considered healthier to have a figure like a pear than like an apple.

What Murthy and his colleagues added to our understanding is the discovery that a 1 percent change in your visceral fat equals a 1 percent change in your risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the beginning stage of serious illnesses.

On the other hand, a change in your subcutaneous fat doesn’t mean much.

Visceral fat seems to matter more than body mass index (BMI) as well. That’s interesting because BMI tells you how your weight compares to the average weight of other people your height. It provides the standard definitions of overweight and obesity.

The new study shows a problem with using BMI to measure your health. You can have a low BMI and still have a dangerous level of visceral fat.

(Another problem with BMI is that you can have a high BMI and still be healthy if you are very muscular.)

How to Watch Your Waist

So why not stop measuring BMI and just measure visceral fat instead? Unfortunately, you can’t do that very accurately without a CT scan (which exposes you to radiation) or an MRI (which is technically difficult.)

Measure your waist not your weight
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography. Some rights reserved.

That’s why Murthy and his colleagues recommend that you watch your waist. It’s the quickest, easiest way to get an idea of your visceral fat. (Here’s how to do it properly. It might even be worth getting a professional to do it for you.)

Unfortunately, measuring your waist only gives you an approximate idea of your visceral fat. So you’ll still need to combine this measurement with your BMI. But putting the two together, you can learn a lot about your health.

Here’s how the American Heart Association puts it:

If your BMI is greater than or equal to 25 kilograms/meter2, your goal for waist circumference is less than 40 inches if you’re a man and less than 35 inches if you’re a woman.

Don’t want to do math? Try this Kaiser Permanente calculator.  Unlike most of the BMI calculators out there, it combines BMI with waist measurement and gives you an overall assessment.

How to Reduce Visceral Fat

The next obvious question is “what can I do to reduce my visceral fat?” Researchers have not found a surefire way to target visceral fat alone.  (Bariatric surgery may help if you’re very obese, says Murthy, but liposuction just gets the subcutaneous fat.)

You can find dozens of articles online telling you how to lose belly fat. And most of them work because any type of weight loss technique will also thin out your midsection, if you’ve got fat there. The same techniques will pare away fat from the rest of your frame as well. It’s likely that most of them will cut your visceral fat along with the rest, but researchers are still exploring what works best. “I don’t think it’s incredibly clear what hormonal or dietary differences cause individuals to store more fat viscerally or subcutaneously,” says the study’s lead author, Ravi Shah, of Harvard Medical School.

And it’s certain that a healthy diet and exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes in people with a large waistline. If you are such a person, watch your waist. When it shrinks, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

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The featured image on this page is by Helga Weber. Some rights reserved.

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