Belly fat spells trouble for even the healthiest individuals, based on a body mass analysis of more than 2,600 women who were considered a healthy weight. The study found that belly fat more than triples risk for heart disease in women and suggests that it’s not just the numbers on a scale that matter when it comes to heart health.
Published in the European Heart Journal, this study looked at body type and risk for heart disease—the leading killer of women in the United States. The goal of the study was to see if how we carry weight matters, even when we’re considered a healthy weight.
The study included 2,683 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative—a large U.S. study that tracks the health of postmenopausal women. Through the study, women completed body scans to map the amount of fat in their body, focusing on upper body (belly fat) and lower body (leg fat). Participants were then followed for 18 years for key outcomes like heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
At the start of the study, all women were free of heart disease and had healthy weight based on body mass index. Body mass index is a measure of height and weight that helps determine whether someone is a healthy weight.
Over the study period, 291 women developed heart disease or experienced heart events. However, analysis showed that fat distribution had a significant impact on cardiovascular risk.
Women with the highest level of belly fat had 91% greater risk of heart disease than those with the lowest belly fat content. However, those who carried extra weight in their legs had 38% lower risk of heart disease than those who had little body fat in their legs. Additionally, analysis showed that women with the highest level of belly fat and the lowest level of leg fat had more than three times greater risk of heart disease.
What findings show, according to authors, is that where we carry our extra weight matters.
As a result, authors note that both weight and fat distribution should be taken into account when assessing risk for heart disease. Experts also encourage additional research on how changes in fat distribution can reduce risk for heart disease and promote better health.