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Sep 18, 2015

Deep Belly Fat Increases Cardiovascular Risk

Study finds that both volume and type of belly fat have an impact on heart health.

Not all types of fat are created equal when it comes to heart health, according to a study linking certain types of belly fat to increased cardiovascular risk.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study analyzed the impact of visceral and subcutaneous fat on cardiovascular health. Subcutaneous fat is the fat that lies directly under the skin, while visceral fat lies deep within the abdomen surrounding the body’s organs. Although carrying extra weight increases risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases, studies suggest that deep belly fat may be the most harmful when it comes to heart health.

To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study—one of the longest running studies on heart disease in the United States. Between 2002 and 2005, more than 1,700 overweight adults participated in the study, undergoing CT scans to assess body fat. Six years later, participants then had follow-up scans to measure any changes in body fat composition. Throughout the study, researchers also tracked key cardiovascular risk factors, including blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.

After analysis, researchers found that regardless of body mass index, higher amounts of visceral fat were significantly linked to higher blood sugar and cholesterol levels in women. Subcutaneous fat was also linked to increased cardiovascular risk in women, but the association was weaker. Interestingly, the same associations existed in men but findings were not considered statistically significant.

The take home message, as researchers explain, is that the volume and type of belly fat both impact cardiovascular risk. Overall, there’s no question that overweight and obesity increase risk for a number of serious health complications. However, findings suggest that cardiovascular risk varies among overweight patients depending on the type of body fat they have. For example, two people of the same weight may have different risk for heart disease depending on how much deep belly fat they have.

With future research, experts hope to better understand the impact of types of body fat on cardiovascular health. Researchers also hope to learn how best to apply what we know about body fat to reduce patients’ cardiovascular risk. By assessing body fat, experts hope to better identify patients at increased risk for heart disease and take steps to prevent complications in these patients.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is a healthy weight for me?
  • A few important tools can be used to determine if an individual is underweight, normal weight or overweight. The easiest tool is a Body Mass Index, which is calculated using height and weight to estimate levels of body fat. However, Body Mass Index is not always accurate, particularly among individuals with extremely high or low amounts of muscle. In these cases, measuring waist circumference is helpful in assessing weight, as a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for a woman or 40 inches for a man is considered unhealthy.
  • What is abdominal obesity?
  • Abdominal obesity is defined as having a waist circumference greater than 40 inches for a man or 35 inches for a woman. Although excess fat can have a negative impact on health, carrying extra belly fat is especially harmful, increasing risk for heart diseasediabetes and cancer, among other conditions. The good news is that losing just 3-5% of body weight can help reduce cardiovascular risk and improve overall health.


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