Nobody wants a spare tire, but if you've been neglecting the gym and hitting the drive-thru more often than you care to admit, belly bulge just may creep up on you. And while you certainly don't need to aspire for the stick-thin supermodel physique, a large belly could indicate dangerous levels of visceral fat, affecting your health in some nasty ways. To see if you're in the danger zone, whip out the tape measure: A waist circumference of 35 or larger for women, or 40 or larger for men, is a sign of excess visceral fat.
What makes visceral fat so evil? While subcutaneous fat sits directly under your skin, visceral fat pads the internal organs of your midsection. From there, it emits chemicals called cytokines, which cause inflammation. So while you may be most concerned with the subcutaneous fat you can pinch, visceral fat is the real bad guy, playing a far more active role in compromising your health.
Of all the risks that come with visceral fat, heart disease is the biggie—after all, it's the leading cause of death in America—and both sexes are vulnerable. According to Harvard Medical School, women with large waists may have double the cardiovascular disease risk of smaller-waisted gals, and every extra 2 inches of waist circumference may cause that risk to go up by as much as 10 percent. On top of that, visceral fat is linked to heart-disease risk factors like high blood pressure, high blood glucose and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Beyond heart disease, Harvard blames visceral fat for contributing to a host of other unsavory illnesses, including asthma. As strange as that sounds, medical experts theorize that asthma results from inflammation, so belly fat may sometimes be to blame. People with too much visceral fat are also three times more likely to develop colorectal cancer, and visceral fat is even linked to breast cancer in premenopausal women.
Scarily, visceral fat's dangerous grasp extends all the way to your brain. WebMD cites a Kaiser Permanente study of 6,500 members that spanned 36 years. Researchers found that patients with the biggest stomachs had double the risk of dementia—even if they weren't overweight.
If your belly is on the wider side, don't stress out about it—for one thing, anxiety could elevate visceral fat levels even more, says Harvard. And for another thing, visceral fat is easier to shed than subcutaneous fat, so making some lifestyle changes now can help nip any health issues in the bud.
The best defense against visceral fat is a combination of diet and physical activity. This type of fat responds well to both aerobic exercise and weight training, so include both in your arsenal. Eat a balanced diet, and keep portion sizes sensible to avoid calorie overload. Skip trans fats and anything sweetened with glucose. And if you smoke, it's time to quit. Finally, get a good night's rest, as poor sleeping habits are linked to visceral fat, too. According to Harvard, getting more than five (but no more than eight) hours of shuteye per night may help.
image: Helga Weber