Why paying attention to your waistline matters


You've probably heard that your belly is the most dangerous place to carry excess fat because of its link to health risks. It's true, and now new research from the Mayo Clinic reveals that being normal weight with excess belly fat is even more risky than simply qualifying as obese. In other words, your waistline matters-a lot.

The study looked at a representative sample of the US population, which included more than 12,000 subjects ages 18 years and older. Through surveys, various facts were collected, including height, weight, waist and hip measurements, socioeconomic status, illnesses, and lab tests. That baseline data was matched to the National Death Index about 14 years later, and people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer were excluded from the analysis.

Scientists found that subjects with normal BMIs who were apple shaped (a high waist-to-hip ratio) were more likely to die from any cause, even compared to those who were obese. In addition, this group was 2.75 times more likely to die from heart disease and twice as likely to die from any cause compared with those who had a normal BMI and a healthy waist-to-hip ratio.

The news is scary, but if you're worried about your expanding waistline, don't panic. First, consider which type of belly fat you're carrying. Researchers believe the risks found in this study are tied to internal belly fat, also called visceral fat. Subcutaneous belly fat, the squishy, squeezable kind just under the surface of your skin, isn't considered as hazardous. Visceral fat on the other hand is the deep, internal belly fat under your abdominal muscles that accumulates around your organs. It doesn't jiggle when you walk, and it's more dangerous because it's associated with an increased risk of a number of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure, and some cancers.

If you think you may be carrying more visceral fat, there are steps you can take to reduce it. In another recent study, Wake Forest researchers found that two habits stood out in reducing belly fat accumulation: eating more soluble fiber and engaging in moderate activity. Among more than 1,000 people studied, each 10-gram increase in soluble fiber consumed per day resulted in a 4 percent reduction in visceral fat over five years. And being regularly moderately active resulted in more than a 7 percent decrease in visceral fat build up over the same time period.

There are lots of resources here on Shape.com to help you be more active. As for soluble fiber, that's the soft sticky kind found in oats (if you've ever stirred oatmeal you've probably see that stickiness). Other good sources are fruits, veggies, beans, and lentils. Here are five foods, which can reasonably be consumed in one day, that add up to an extra 10 grams of soluble fiber: 2 tablespoons flax seeds (2.2 g), 1 cup cooked Brussels sprouts (4 g), ½ cup black beans (1.4 g), 1 small orange (1.8 g), 1 (7") raw carrot (1.1 g).

And there are other ways to lower your risk. Check out some of my previous posts, which include belly-fat fighting strategies like eating more raw foods, choosing good fats, reaching for more berries, and considering certain vitamins.

What's your take on this topic? Do you pay attention to both weight or BMI and your waist measurement? Please tweet your thoughts to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine


Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.