a large waist size (greater than 35 inches for women and 40 for men) were 70 percent more likely to die during the study than those with smaller waists.
The study also found, like some previous studies have, that Body Mass Index (BMI) is a flawed measurement tool, as it tells you nothing about where fat is located in the body, and it appears that the location of the fat is more important than the amount of fat when it comes to measuring heart risks.
BMI also neglects to mention how muscular a person may be. Athletes and completely out-of-shape individuals can have close to the same BMI scores, or a very muscular person could be classified as "obese" using BMI, when in reality that person’s body consists of lean muscle accounting for their higher-than-average weight.
What About Having a Large Waist So Potentially Dangerous?
Your body has two types of fat: visceral and subcutaneous. Subcutaneous fat is found just under your skin, and causes dimpling and cellulite. Visceral fat, on the other hand, shows up in your abdomen and surrounds your vital organs including your liver, heart and muscles.
This "visceral fat" is strongly linked to a person developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other chronic diseases. It is thought that visceral fat is related to the release of proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage arteries and enter your liver, affecting how your body breaks down sugars and fats.
When your body is in a mode of consistently storing excess visceral fat, you increase your risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, vascular disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of your arteries) and an increased thickness in the walls of your heart.
While visceral fat is often referred to as "belly fat" because it can cause a "beer belly" or an apple-shaped body, you can have visceral fat even if you're thin. As CNN reported regarding the Journal of the American College of Cardiology:
"Even heart patients with apple-shaped bodies and BMIs in the normal range were at increased
risk of dying sooner, which drives home the fact that normal-weight heart patients may need to lose some weight in their bellies too …"
Where Does Your Waist Measure Up?
Determining your waist size is easy. With a tape measure, figure the distance around the smallest area of your abdomen below your rib cage and above your belly button. If you're not sure if you have a healthy waist circumference, a general guide is:
- For men, between 37 and 40 inches is overweight and more than 40 inches is obese
- For women, 31.5 and 34.6 inches is overweight and more than 34.6 inches is obese
Leptin and Inflammation:
The hormones your fat cells produce impact how much you eat and how much fat you burn. One of these hormones is leptin, and leptin sends signals that reduce hunger, increase fat burning and reduce fat storage. That is, if your cells are communicating properly and can "hear" this message.
If you are eating a diet that is high in sugar and grains - this is the same type of diet that will also increase inflammation in your body - as the sugar gets metabolized in fat cells, fat releases surges in leptin. Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to the leptin (just as your body can become resistant to insulin).
Leptin resistance causes an increase in the visceral fat your body produces. Likewise, it is through an inflammatory process that it's thought visceral fat causes its damage, and the same diet that makes you leptin resistant will also increase inflammation in your body.
So by paying closer attention to this one important factor – your diet - you can reduce your risk of both becoming leptin resistant and triggering chronic inflammation in your body.
Dietary Change #1: Limit Added Sugars
The single largest source of calories for Americans comes from added sugars, primarily from soft drinks, fruit juices and sports drinks, and hidden in most processed foods. This includes foods such as bologna, pretzels, cheese spreads, and Worcestershire sauce and other condiments.
Excess sugar quickly leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity, along with elevated uric acid, which leads to chronic, low-level inflammation in your body. It will also interfere with leptin, as
fructose tricks your body into gaining weight by fooling your metabolism, as it turns off your body's appetite-control system.
As a standard recommendation, I strongly advise keeping your TOTAL sugar consumption below 50 grams per day. Remember, the average 12-ounce can of soda contains 40 grams of sugar!
Exercise - The Key to Melting Away that Stubborn Belly Fat
Exercise not only lowers inflammation in your body, it is also one of the best weapons to fight visceral fat, but it is NOT magic and you must abide by the sugar and grain restriction if you want to reduce your body fat. About 80% of your ability to achieve an ideal body fat will be related to your food choices NOT your exercises. However if you are choosing the right foods exercise is a shockingly effective tool.
Remember, you can be thin, underweight even, and still have dangerous visceral fat around your organs. If you are thin, but rarely exercise, this may be you. And if you have a beer belly or a lot of fat around your midsection, you can also bet on the fact that you're holding on to visceral fat.
According to one study, those who did not exercise gained a substantial amount of visceral fat (8.6 percent) in six months whereas those participating in vigorous-intensity exercise lost about 7 percent of both subcutaneous and visceral fat.
Three More Tips for a Healthy Heart
Heart disease can be one of the easiest diseases to prevent if you make the decision to be proactive. Along with reducing your belly fat by paying attention to your diet and incorporating exercise, the following items are heart-healthy steps that virtually everyone can benefit from.
1. Optimize Your Vitamin D Level
Studies show that people with the lowest average vitamin D levels had a 124 percent greater risk of dying from all causes and a 378 percent greater risk of dying from a heart problem!
2. Manage Your Stress Levels with Healthy Emotional Outlets
One of the most common contributing factors to heart disease is unresolved emotional stress. Anger, stress, guilt, sadness - really any emotion that doesn't make you feel good - can lead to heart attacks, obesity and strokes. Even the best diet in the world is not likely to overcome the damage created by lingering emotional stresses.
When your body is under the stress response, your cortisol levels rise. And when your cortisol is chronically elevated, you'll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which further increases your heart disease risk.
While you cannot eliminate stress entirely, you can work to provide emotional outlets for yourself such as meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling or talking to a qualified health professional.
Following these tips and staying consistent with them are a sure way to avoid heart disease and maintain optimal health for your lifetime.
Questions? Feel free to contact me:
Alissa Robertson, MS, RD