I’ve devoted years to studying belly fat and its effect on the human body. When I began my work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a senior research fellow, we were just beginning to realize that this internal belly fat is like no other fat. Although we need some intra-abdominal fat, too much of it was a danger to our lives. The incidence of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, inflammation and cancer climbs with the amount of excess fat we’re packin’ inside our bellies. I argued that everyone needs to start paying lots more attention to their girth, and encouraged everyone to become a waist watcher!
Now we have new data from a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine that supports my waist-watching recommendation. This news should rock your belly boat. The study found that even if you have a normal overall weight, if you’ve got excess belly fat and thus a larger than normal waist circumference, you have a much greater chance of dying from any cause over a decade. The researchers looked at 48,500 men and 56,343 women 50 and older who completed questionnaires for the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort. During the study period, 9,315 men and 5,332 women died.
Here’s what they found: Men whose waists were 47 inches or larger, and women whose girth exceeded 42 inches, had twice the risk of dying compared to those who had normal-sized waists (less than 40 inches for a man, and less than 35 inches for women). Here’s the rub. The BMI (body mass index which should be less than 25) didn’t matter. That means that just because you have a normal BMI doesn’t mean you’re out of danger. What the study is saying is that waist size, not just BMI, is a powerful predictor for death.
The bulging belly problem reaches across all ages, but is especially troublesome for men and women over the age of 40. Some studies have noted that over half of men over 50 and 70 percent of women 50+ have larger-than-recommended girths. Here’s a fact I bet you didn’t know: The average waistline has increased by one inch for every decade since the 1960s. Hmmm. That’s just about the time we introduced dieting to the American population and became fixated on super skinnies like Twiggy while we gulped diet foods and beverages.
The study also found that people who had four extra inches around their waist had a 15-25% increased risk of dying. For reasons no one understands, the strongest increase (25%) was in women with larger than normal waistlines and a normal BMI. This means you could be 5’5″ and weigh 130 pounds with a normal BMI of 21.6, but if your waist size is 35 inches or larger, then your risk of dying increases by 25%. So, normal weight folks out are not out of the woods unless their girth is under control.
Here’s something everyone needs to be aware of. As you age, and especially if you’re sedentary and not physically active on a regular basis, it’s much easier to lose muscle and replace it with fat. You are unaware of this body composition shift because often your weight may not change. However, your shape has. You’re accumulating more belly fat, dropping muscle all over the body, and quietly increasing your risk for dying. So, don’t be fooled into complacency because the scale hasn’t changed much. Your waistline has.
How does this new information impact on you right now? Here are my thoughts:
1. Measure up. Grab a tape measure and whip it around your belly button. If you’re a guy whose girth is 40 inches or greater, or a gal whose belly is 35 or more, listen up. It’s irrelevant what your weight and BMI are. You need to get that belly reduced below 40 and 35 inches respectively.
2. Become a waist watcher. Pay attention to your waist measurement over time. In a log book, keep track of your overall weight, BMI, body fat percentage and waist measurement. These numbers will give you a much more accurate assessment of your body composition, as well as risk for future problems. Look at pictures of yourself over time. It’s an eye opener for many folks to see the shape shifting that occurs as we age.
3. Mind your belt. Women, get out of your elastic waistbands. They’re nothing but trouble. You can add 20 pounds and barely know it when you wear those kinds of garments. Instead, get more fitted clothes and belts, which help to keep you connected with your mind and body, instead of dissociated (body, what body?) in elastic. Watch out for Muffin Top — belly fat plopping over your waistline. If you’ve got it, work to remove it. If you don’t and your belly size is less than 35 inches, keep it that way. Men, watch out for BOB — belly over belt. Don’t be fooled by your ability to buckle your 36-inch belt when you have major spillage going on above your belt. If you can’t see your feet because your belly’s in the way, you’re in a heap of trouble.
4. Healthy lifestyle habits are the answer. You can do ab crunches until the cows come home, but you won’t reduce that belly unless you eat less and move more. Strive to burn 400 calories everyday by moving around more and adding intensity when you can. Weight lifting is very important as it builds a more powerful calorie-burning engine that will help sustain any weight removal you’ve achieved. Do it twice per week. Pay more attention to the quality, quantity and frequency of your food consumption. Whole foods please! Watch the portions. Most of you are eating way beyond what you need. Try to eat every 3-4 hours to quell runaway appetites. End your eating by 8 PM each night when you can. And get plenty of sleep. Sleep-deprived folks have larger bellies.
Are you keeping an eye on your waistline? How are you fighting belly fat? Share your tips with the Dieting Community.