Belly fat doesn't look pretty, but that's not the only problem with it. Men who have excess belly fat are at higher risk for health problems. However, not all tummy fat is created equal. There's subcutaneous fat, the jiggly kind you can pinch and squeeze between your fingers. Then there's visceral fat. Visceral fat lies deeper within your pelvic cavity, where it wraps around organs. It's visceral belly fat that's directly linked to health problems. Higher levels of visceral fat in men are associated with a host of medical issues including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
Why is belly fat in men such a problem?
We think of belly fat as being a storage depot for energy that can be accessed during times of low food supply, but researchers are learning that fat is much more than that. Fat also produces hormone-like compounds called cytokines that increase inflammation. This is especially true of visceral fat. These inflammatory compounds can trigger the type of low-grade inflammation that plays a role in heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Plus, visceral fat is a risk factor for all-cause mortality in men. Pretty scary, huh?
How much is too much?
If you're a male, how do you know if you have too much? You don't have to be overweight to have too much visceral fat. In fact, relatively thin men can have problems with visceral abdominal fat and not know it, since visceral fat lies deep in your pelvic cavity.
The best indication? A waistline greater than 40 inches in circumference. Combine that with elevated lipid levels (triglycerides or LDL cholesterol) and high blood pressure and you almost surely have a problem with visceral fat. A 40-inch waistline is an arbitrary cutoff point for a higher risk for health problems, but it's important to take an expanding waistline seriously. A 38-inch waist can very quickly turn into a 40-inch one unless you make the appropriate lifestyle changes.
Since visceral fat produces cytokines that are pro-inflammatory, it can quietly do harm, like cause blood vessel inflammation that leads to heart disease and high blood pressure, increase insulin resistance, and promote the growth of tumor cells. There's another problem too. Some of the excess fat can deposit around the liver, leading to a common condition called fatty liver. In some people, fatty liver progresses to liver inflammation and then cirrhosis. That's another reason to keep belly fat under control.
What can you do about it?
Fortunately, if you're a male with excess visceral abdominal fat, you can reduce your risk by making appropriate lifestyle changes. Here are some things you can do to tame belly fat:
Lose weight if you're overweight.
Do vigorous exercise several times a week. All exercise helps to reduce visceral fat but high-intensity exercise appears to be best. Start out walking but as you build up your fitness level, alternate walking with short periods of running, gradually increasing the intensity over time. Don't forget about the importance of resistance training to help improve body composition.
Choose the right kinds of carbs. Avoid processed carbs that are rapidly absorbed and choose more whole foods that are naturally high in fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Cut back on sugar, soft drinks, and "white" foods like white rice, potatoes, and bread made with white flour. Avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup or trans-fats, present in many packaged foods. Fill up on vegetables! Veggies contain natural compounds that help reduce inflammation.
Cut back on saturated fats in animal foods and full-fat dairy products. Instead, choose healthier forms of fat like monounsaturated fats in nuts, olive, and avocados, and omega-3 fats in fatty fish. Substitute plant-based protein and fish for a portion of the meat you eat.
Cut back on alcohol. Drinking three or more drinks a day can increase visceral fat. Stick to one glass of red wine daily. Red wine has natural antioxidants that may lower your risk for heart disease.
The Bottom Line
If you're a man, you may have too much visceral belly fat and not know it. Measure your waistline every few months and make sure it's not expanding. If you're approaching 40 inches, it's time to make some lifestyle changes. The good news? A combination of diet and exercise will go far toward decreasing belly fat. So take a closer look at your diet -- and get moving!