Belly Fat Linked to Increased Death Risk — No Matter What Your Weight

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Carrying fat around your abdomen is bad for you no matter how much you weigh, according to a new study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In a seven-year follow-up of more than 100,000 Americans aged 50 or older, the most rotund men and women were at roughly twice the risk of death as the slimmest. Waist circumference was a significant predictor of mortality even for people who were not overweight as measured by their body mass index (BMI). “Even if your weight is considered ‘normal’ for your height, keeping your waist size in check is important for your health,” the study’s lead author, Eric Jacobs at the American Cancer Institute, explained to Bloomberg News.

Though it’s still not totally clear why fat around the gut should be more dangerous than fat distributed anywhere else on the body, it seems that some fat-cell-produced hormones can promote insulin resistance (leading to diabetes), and may throw off the body’s hormonal balance in other ways as well.  Waist circumference has already been linked — independent of BMI — to heart disease, Type II diabetes and high cholesterol. But this new study is the first with enough people in it to assess the effects of extremely high waist circumference (greater than 47 inches [120cm] among men and 43 inches [110cm] among women). The study also shows a gradient in death risk by small incremental changes in waist circumference: the more belly fat, the higher the risk of death.

To measure your waist circumference properly, according to the Weight-control Information Network from the U.S. National Institutes of Health:

  • Find a tape measure.
  • Place the tape around your abdomen (under your clothes), just above the hip bone.
  • Breathe normally, without sucking in your belly.
  • Pull the tape taut, but don’t let it compress your skin. Make sure the tape is level all the way around your waist.
  • Exhale, and take the measurement.

Women with a waist circumference of 35 inches (88cm) or greater, and men with a waist circumference of 40 inches (102cm) or greater, are deemed to be at “high risk” of weight-related illness. But don’t be too embarrassed if you fall into this category. According to the study by Jacobs and colleagues published today, more than 50% of men and 70% of women aged 50-79 now exceed this high-risk cut-off. The best remedy is simply weight loss. You lose belly fat most reliably, doctors say, just by cutting calories and exercising more.

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