Obesity and Heart Disease
Obesity—having too much body fat—is pretty common. Today, obesity affects more than 1 out of 3 adults in the U.S. Being obese raises a person’s risk of many forms of heart disease, as well as other health problems.
But, your risk isn’t just about how much body fat you have. Where you carry the extra weight seems to matter, too. According to research, belly fat is of particular concern. In fact, even people who are not obese but have a large waistline show a higher risk for heart disease.
If you are obese or carry a lot of fat around your middle, take heart. Even small changes can make a big difference for your health.
What is Obesity?
Obesity means that you are carrying too much fat on your body. This can hurt your health.
Obesity has been linked to:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart failure
- Heart attack
- Type 2 diabetes
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Breast, colorectal and other cancers
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic pain
You can find out if you are obese by calculating your body mass index (BMI), a measurement based on your height and weight. A BMI of 25-29 means you are overweight and a BMI of 30 or higher means you are obese. Try our BMI calculator.
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But BMI is not a perfect measurement and it doesn’t give a complete picture of your health. And we know that how your body fat is distributed can also affect your health risks.
BMI is often used in combination with knowing the size of your waistline. This is called your waist circumference.
In general, having a waist size of more than 40 inches in men or 35 inches in women raises a red flag and can be a concern. Learn how to measure your waist.
Recent research has found that having a large middle section can have negative health consequences, including a higher chance of developing diabetes or heart disease—
and that’s regardless of your BMI. Our waistlines often expand as we age. Excess belly fat can also come from medical conditions such as thyroid problems. Even people who are not overweight or obese can suffer the negative health effects of belly fat, so it’s important to see your doctor regularly and keep your waist in check.
More: Why Belly Fat is Important
Small changes make a big difference!
Many people falsely believe that weight loss must be all or nothing. The truth is, every little bit counts.
Research shows losing just 3% of your body weight can lower blood glucose levels, and losing 5%-10% of your body weight can improve your blood pressure and cholesterol. If you weigh 180 pounds, that means dropping just 6 pounds to 18 pounds can make a measurable difference toward reducing your risk of heart disease.
To help protect your heart and overall health, make a plan to shed extra pounds. You’ll be surprised how much baby steps—simple changes like opting for the stairs instead of the elevator, reaching for a healthy snack, walking just a little farther—can add up.
What Causes Excess Body Fat?
Many factors play a part in the accumulation of extra body fat. For many people, a combination of eating habits and lifestyle factors cause a gradual increase in body fat over time. These same unhealthy patterns can also contribute to other obesity-linked problems, like stress and depression that can, in turn, make it more difficult to eat well and exercise.
Key factors related to weight gain include:
- Inactivity. Your body needs regular exercise to maintain a healthy weight. This includes not just occasional bursts of physical activity (such as a trip to the gym), but moving around throughout the day. Sitting for long periods each day is linked to higher rates of death and health problems—a condition known as “sitting disease.”
- Poor eating habits. You need lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy proteins. Foods in which more than 30% of the calories come from saturated fat are much more likely to cause your body to accumulate fat. Drinks with added sugar and alcohol can also be a source of wasted calories.
- Aging. Fat tends to accumulate as we age because of changes in hormones and metabolism, especially after menopause (in women). While you can’t stop aging, you can adjust your portions and eating habits as you expect this natural tendency.
- Genes. Certain genes have been linked with belly fat or obesity. In addition to being more likely to carry excess weight, people with these genes have been shown to face a significant risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.
- Stress, depression and sleep deprivation. These factors not only affect your mood—they also affect your body. Hormonal changes and other factors associated with stress, depression and insufficient sleep can change how your body processes and stores fat, making it more difficult to shed pounds. These factors also make it harder to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits.
Last reviewed: March 2019
Published: December 2017
Medical Reviewers: Asma Aouthmany, MD; Eldad Einav, MD, FACC; Yasmine Subhi Ali, MD, FACC