Do you know what the shape of your body says about your life expectancy? Surprisingly, a new study suggests that the size of your waist may predict your future health, including whether or not you’ll develop high blood pressure, diabetes or have a heart attack or stroke. You’re safest, the study found, when your waist measures half your height - less than 36 inches if you’re a six-foot tall man and under 32 inches if you’re a five-foot-four-inch tall woman.
Those numbers are a lot easier to grasp than the current method: calculating body mass index (BMI), the ratio of your weight in kilos to the square of your height in meters. BMI as an obesity measurement tool may be on its way out if waist-to-height ratio catches on. At a recent Congress on Obesity in France a British researcher reported on a study with 300,000 people that showed waist-to-height ratio foretold future health better than BMI.
Here’s more evidence about the impact of belly fat on health: researchers from the American Cancer Society tracked more than 100,000 older people for nine years, asking them to measure and report the size of their waistlines periodically. Results showed that those with the biggest waists had twice the risk of dying as those with the smallest waists. That may not be a big surprise, but this is: among normal-weight women, the risk of dying during the nine-year study rose by 25 percent for each additional four inches around the waist.
Clearly, there’s much more to belly fat than meets the eye. Here are six useful myths and facts about belly fat and how to get rid of it:
Myth. The fat you see in the mirror isn’t all your belly fat. More important to your health is the visceral fat deep in the abdomen that wraps itself around your liver and other internal organs.
The bad news is that this fat raises the risk of diabetes and heart disease. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to lose with diet and regular exercise. Hint: a study from Penn State found that adults who ate whole grains doubled the loss of belly fat in 12 weeks compared to those who ate refined grains. You could also add tart cherries to your diet: a University of Michigan study showed that this helps prevent gaining belly weight, at least in rats.
Myth: A 1984 landmark study at the University of Massachusetts is one of several to show that you can’t spot reduce by exercising one area of your body. For the study, 13 men did 5,000 sit-ups over the course of 27 days.
Afterward, researchers found that the men’s fat decreased in their ab area but also dropped in the butt and upper back, which aren’t worked when you do crunches.
Don’t depend on those devices sold in infomercials either. They don’t work any better than crunches to spot reduce abdominal flab. The upshot? In order to get rid of that muffin top, you have to lose total body fat and exercise the whole body, not just the abs. A 2011 study found that aerobic exercise (such as jogging) trumps resistance training (such as lifting weights) for trimming belly fat in 196 overweight, sedentary adults.
Myth: Since slim women are at high risk of osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease that leads to fractures, doctors have long assumed that being overweight had one big advantage--protection against bone loss as you get older. Not so. A 2010 study from Harvard with 50 overweight premenopausal women found that those with more visceral fat had decreased bone mineral density.
Fact: Losing belly fat helps blood flow more freely, which is good for cardiovascular health. A six-month study at Johns Hopkins showed that the more weight the 60 men and women participating dropped, the better their arteries functioned. The researchers also found that over the course of the study, those on a low-carb diet lost about 10 pounds more than those on a low-fat diet, an average of 28.9 pounds compared to 18.7 pounds.
Fact: Researchers in Canada put three groups of healthy, overweight or obese premenopausal women on different diets--high protein, high dairy; adequate protein, medium dairy; and adequate protein, low dairy. Those on the high-protein, high-dairy diet shed more belly fat than the other groups, and the researchers correlated this change with the women’s intake of calcium and protein. They lost the most weight, too, and gained lean body mass.
Fact: Some of it is good for us. New research has shown that the omentum, a fatty membrane that lines the abdominal cavity, is a key regulator of the immune system. It secretes cells that can suppress the immune system, a finding that may lead to better drugs for preventing organ rejection in transplant patients, and new treatments for autoimmune disorders like lupus or Crohn’s disease. The omentum also contains a type of stem cells that can help regenerate damaged tissues.
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