Measuring your waist may give you a better indication of your risk for many diseases than either your bathroom scale or even your body mass index (BMI). Scientists and doctors have known for years that a big belly is a health risk, but recent studies are backing up the theory with hard facts.
Fat that is stored around vital organs is called visceral fat. And it's deadly. Unlike the fat stored in other parts of the body, which can convert into energy, belly fat continuously creates inflammatory compounds that wreak havoc in your body.
To measure your waist, place a tape measure around the narrowest part of your waist, just above your hipbone. Make sure the tape is snug and level, but don't pull it tight. Exhale — don't suck in — and measure your waist.
Men whose waists are larger than 40 inches and women with waists bigger than 35 inches are at risk.
Even people who are normal weight may be in danger if they carry extra weight in their stomach. Here are seven serious health reasons — including premature death — to lose visceral fat now: 1. Diabetes
A study in Diabetes Care showed that although obesity is a big factor in predicting insulin resistance, the biggest factor is stored fat in the belly. Belly fat surrounds organs necessary for regulating blood and makes it difficult for them to function properly, such as blocking the liver's ability to control insulin. Experts say that losing belly fat can prevent 90 percent of people from developing prediabetes and can actually reverse Type 2 diabetes.
[--pageBreak:"Heart Disease"--] 2. Heart Disease
Danish researchers found that having a spare tire around your middle may be worse for your heart than being obese. Their study, published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, found that women with too much belly fat had a higher risk of atherosclerosis than those who carried their fat in their hips, thighs, and buttocks. Belly fat boosts the production of LDL ("bad") cholesterol, which forms plaque in arteries, then becomes inflamed and swells, causing blockages.
[--pageBreak:"Dementia"--] 3. Dementia
Boston University School of Medicine researchers found a link between smaller brain volume and big bellies in older adults. And a Kaiser Permanente study of more than 6,500 people found that those people who had spare tires when they were in their 40s had a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia in their 70s. Those people who had the most belly fat raised their risk by 145 percent when compared to people with the least amount.
[--pageBreak:"Cancer"--] 4. Cancer
Korean researchers found that people who had a large waistline in their 40s more than doubled their risk of developing precancerous polyps in their colons. They had the same risk as men in their 50s who were of normal weight. The scientists suggested that men with a lot of belly fat undergo colon cancer screening at 45 years of age instead of 50.
[--pageBreak:"Breathing Issues"--] 5. Breathing issues
French researchers studied more than 120,000 people and found that those with excess abdominal fat were twice as likely to have impaired lung function than those without it. The association applied even to those whose weight was normal. Before the study, experts believed that a person had to be severely obese for fat to interfere with lung function.
[--pageBreak:"Depression"--] 6. Depression
A recent study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of more than 400 middle-aged women found a strong link between depression and belly fat. The depressed women had 24.5 percent more visceral fat than women who weren't depressed, and the association was strongest in women who had a spare tire and were also obese. Researchers said the connection seemed to be chemical and wasn't associated with a negative body image.
[--pageBreak:"Early Death"--] 7. Early death
A study involving more than 350,000 people published in The New England Journal of Medicine discovered that having a spare tire can almost double your risk of dying prematurely — even if your BMI index says your weight is normal. People at risk are those of those of normal weight who don't exercise and have excess fat around their bellies.