Health & Fitness

Busting belly-fat myths and uncovering belly-fat truths

Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.

What do you think these numbers represent: 69.3, 195.5, 39.7? And 63.8, 166.2, 37.5?

No, they’re not the stock price of Tesla and Snapchat over the past week. They’re the height, weight and waist circumferences of the average American man and woman. And they add up to huge health problems. The biggest culprit? The waist measurements — 39.7 inches (guys) and 37.5 inches (gals) — indicating that most have large deposits of visceral belly fat surrounding your internal organs.

Study after study shows that whether you’re normal weight, overweight or obese, it’s the amount of visceral belly fat you have pushing your belly button ever-forward that puts your health at greatest risk. Visceral fat has unique and very active physiologic and metabolic characteristics. As it nestles around your internal organs, too much visceral fat can trigger metabolic changes, alter the way your liver functions, impede glucose uptake from blood (where it does damage to your cells) and amp up bodywide inflammation.

What sends fat to your belly? Visceral fat is deposited when you eat more calories than you burn and eat highly processed and sugary foods. Those foods spike blood glucose levels and goose production of insulin. Excess glucose is stored as fat, and excess insulin triggers a hormonal cascade that ends up depositing fat in your midsection.

The health risks

Recent studies show how far-reaching the impact of visceral fat is on your health and well-being.

▪  Chronic stress drenches your cells with cortisol. That, in turn, stimulates glucose production in the liver that, if excessive, gets stored as fat. It also causes fat deposits to relocate deep in the abdomen and enlarges the size of fat cells. Then, in a vicious, visceral cycle, fat cells in the belly stimulate production of cortisol in surrounding tissue. The result: immune system dysregulation, body-wide inflammation, increased risk of heart disease and anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain and high blood pressure.

▪  The American Institute for Cancer Research says that the risk of colon cancer increases 5 percent for each 1-inch increase in waist size. An oversize waist also has been found to increase the risk for pancreatic, breast and colon cancer (after menopause) and uterine cancers.

▪  Excessive belly fat is associated with a twofold increase of your risk for diabetes — even if you’re a “normal” weight.

▪  All that abdominal fat increases the load of free fatty acids in the liver, which in turn increases lousy LDL cholesterol and lowers heart-friendly HDL cholesterol. The result? A much greater risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Flat-belly boosters

You can banish that belly fat by changing your diet and exercise habits. You’re aiming for a waist size of 35 inches or less for women, and 40 or less for men.

▪  Get a minimum of 150 minutes weekly of extra physical activity; better yet, get 10,000 steps a day and two to three, 30-minute sessions of strength training weekly. Want to do more? The STRIDE study found that the equivalent of jogging 20 miles per week substantially decreases stores of visceral fat.

▪  Ditch trans fats. Steer clear of margarine, store-bought baked goods, frostings and crackers, microwavable breakfast sandwiches, frozen pizza and any food that has partially hydrogenated oils or fats listed on the ingredient label.

▪  Stick with 100 percent whole grains. A 12-week study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that obese adults on a weight-loss regimen who ate only whole grains lost twice as much belly fat as participants eating processed grains.

▪  Ditch saturated fats found in dairy and red and processed meats. A Swedish study found that compared with guys eating polyunsaturated fats, sat-fat eaters gained substantially more belly fat.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit