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Why Belly Fat Is Dangerous — And Not Just For Overweight People

A waist size more than 40 inches for men or over 35 for women is a big risk factor for belly fat.

We can see it’s not a good thing for us, but belly fat can have more serious consequences than you know. There's also a way to get rid of it.

“Genetically there are two types of people," says Dr. Donna Casey, an internist with Texas Health Dallas. “Some people can gain weight and they’re like a stick figure with a fat wrapped around them, which is a good thing. And the other people have fat mixed in with their organs, which is bad.”

Casey says when fat is mixed in organs like the heart and liver, people tend to accumulate more abdominal fat. That starts to create hormones, which puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome, which causes diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and increases your overall risk of heart attack. There's even a risk of dementia related to belly fat.

How do you accumulate belly fat? "Overeating, not exercising," said Casey. "Putting more calories in than you burn off."

How do you get rid of belly fat? Casey says diet and with exercise – for example, a fast 20 minute walk each day. But she also recommends consulting your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

Interview Highlights

Belly fat’s not just for overweight people: You can be normal weight and still have fat distribution in your abdomen. And that increases your risk for things like heart disease by double, increases your risk of early premature death by two times, increases your risk of colorectal cancer by two, breast cancer by two to three times.

How belly fat accumulates if you’re not overweight: Genetics. And lack of exercise, lack of activity. It’s a first world country problem. It’s so easy now to have a fast-paced life, work too hard, drive through and get a one dollar hamburger and French fries. It’s very easy to overlook the diet, not pay attention and not lead the lifestyle that we should. Sugar’s also a big offender. It’s easy to have a 32 ounce Coke or Sprite. Sweet tea’s also a problem in the South.

Another criteria for belly fat: Measure your waist. Not at your hips, but at your waist. Over 35 inches for women is the big risk factor and over 40 for men. A different factor is your body mass index. You can Google calculators and enter your weight, height, etc. You do not want to have BMI over 25 if you’re a man or a woman.

How to get rid of belly fat: Diet and exercise. Raise your awareness. Write down everything you’re eating. And then increase your activity. You don’t have to go to a gym. You can walk fast for 20 minutes at home or at the mall. Rapid walking will also tell your body to secrete growth hormone and dopamine and that also helps increase your metabolism. You should also consult with your doctor to make sure you’re in good condition to begin this kind of exercise.


Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.