December 25th, 2008
09:30 AM ET

Is belly fat more dangerous to our health?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers’ questions. Here’s a question for Dr. Gupta.

Asked by Sydney, Fort Wayne, Indiana

"I heard that having a potbelly is the worst type of fat to have. Any truth to that?"


Thanks for the question, Sydney. There’s been a lot of research trying to determine whether abdominal fat is, in fact, different from fat in other areas of our body. The answer is yes. We now know belly fat is the most dangerous type to have because it’s actually more biologically active, which causes calcium build-up in our arteries. This is significant because often people in a normal BMI range are still carrying extra weight in their stomachs but may not realize they’re at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Also, research recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with belly fat have a higher risk of dying compared to their peers without a spare tire.

So now the question is how do you figure out whether you’re at risk? Instead of just looking at the number on the scale, keep track of something known as your waist-to-hip ratio. Here’s how to do it: Measure the circumference around your belly button and then around your hips. You want your waist measurement to be smaller than your hips and thighs. The smaller the better. In the study I mentioned, researchers say a 2-inch increase in waist circumference raises mortality risk by 17 percent in men and 13 percent in women, regardless of BMI.

On a positive note, stomach fat is really the easiest to lose. Making a few tweaks to your diet routine and more importantly, if you get moving, you’ll notice your stomach fat slim down in no time at all. Exercise is still the best way to maintain long-term healthy weight. Try to fit in some sort of daily activity. Don't have an hour? No problem. Split up activities into small amounts throughout your day and reap the same benefits. Also, if you have weight to lose, the worst thing you can do is stop eating. The best way to get your metabolism moving and lose weight is to eat frequently - small meals every four to five hours. Also, never skip breakfast. Studies show people who eat breakfast lose more weight and burn more calories than those who do not.

So bottom line, Sydney, pay attention to not only how much you weigh, but where the fat is settling in on your body.

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soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Carol, Eden Prairie, MN

    The American Heart Association has a wonderful program called "Go Red for Women" with an on-line segment called "Choose to Move". I found it to be extremely informative, very educational, and highly motivational!!

    December 27, 2008 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. JoAnn Marble

    Wouldn't a tummy tuck remove belly fat and therefore eliminate the risk of getting a heart attack or cardiovascular disease?

    December 28, 2008 at 08:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lorna

    I have been a paraplegic since 1974(break between shoulder blades). I would LOVE to see someone address how I can reduce my waistline. I've got the diet routine handled, but can't lose weight and find an exercise plan.

    December 29, 2008 at 14:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. aughra


    Actually, no, the misleading factor is not the fat, it's that the placement of fat is an indicator of how the body is managing the fat. For those carrying their fat on their hips and thighs, the fat is between the skin and muscle, thus the dreaded cellulite and the ability to liposuck.

    But waist fat is a triple threat. It's both on top of and beneath the muscles, and around the organs. Can't lipo it out. And the fat around the organs keeps them from working effectively. And the hormone, cortisol, which helps place that fat there also affects the function of fat on the blood vessels, filling those up with fat too. Even if you were to lipo the surface belly fat, the other fat is still there, and the body is still making it stick to the blood vessels, and building a risk of stroke or heart attack.

    December 29, 2008 at 17:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dr. Izhar

    By and large WHR (Waist to Hip Ratio) helps as it changes configuration from an APPLE to PEAR. However, many things are still not understood. Many people in the apple category survive compare to their pear counterparts. I think other coexisting factors, genetic predisposition and the nature of fat might play a bigger role than just the pattern of redistribution around the body.

    December 29, 2008 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. GF, Los Angeles

    @ JoAnn always looking for the easy fix....

    A tummy tuck is not going to unclog your arteries. The only way to be healthy is by eating better and moving.

    December 30, 2008 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Priscilla Bray

    I am very appreciative of the medical information about waist weight gain. Please continue to educate me on diet, exercise and various other health concerns. Thank you.

    January 7, 2009 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Margaret Diann

    Belly fat is often an indication of the metabolic X or metabolic syndrome. I believe there is a particular chemical exposure down through the decades that has caused so much diabetes and things such as this: an organic solvent, pesiticide, neurotoxin, teratogen, called 2-butoxyethanol or BUTYL for short. Learn to avoid it as it has been and is in widespread use. Often too strong in cleaning products, paints, etc. http://www.valdezlink.com/re/metabolic-ptsd.htm#on

    January 11, 2009 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. smaneck

    I have a lot of belly fat but a cholesterol level of only 125. Why is that? Are my arteries still at risk?

    August 29, 2012 at 19:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. reduce chest fat

    It's actually a nice and helpful piece of information. I'm satisfied that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

    April 3, 2013 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Margo Lagoo

    flying homes


    September 29, 2016 at 11:10 | Report abuse | Reply

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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.