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The Dangers of Belly Fat

Abdominal Fat: a big health risk

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First published: 11.Oct.2018

Overview: Visceral Fat, a silent killer

The current obesity epidemic has led to an increase in many health conditions such as nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFLD), asthma, dementia, higher cholesterol levels, increased blood pressure and blood sugar levels, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

But these conditions aren't just the serious side effects of being overweight or the consequences of obesity alone, on the contrary, they are caused not only by being overweight but also by a growing midriff.

The accumulation of visceral or abdominal fat in the midsection of both young and adult Americans harms their health.

In this article, we discuss the health risks provoked by the fat that is buried deep within you, between your abdomen's vital organs. This visceral or abdominal fat is, in fact, a silent killer.

In this Article (Index)

Diagram of a person -side view- showing the layers of abdominal and subcutaneous fat
This is where your abdominal and subcutaneous fat is located. A. Whittall

The Dangers of Visceral Fat

Being overweight or obese is associated with a wide range of health conditions, but as we will see below, it isn't only being fat, it is also about where the fatty tissues are located.

Even relatively slim, non-obese individuals with a higher proportion of visceral fat, are predisposed to suffer from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Let's review the different diseases that are linked to abdominal fat, but first, we will explain what abdominal fat is:

What are Visceral and Subcutaneous Fat?

Both men and women tend to put on weight as they age, and most of it is stored in the midsection.

There are two types of fat in the abdominal area: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat.

Visceral Fat (VAT)

Visceral or abdominal fat (we will use the abbreviation VAT which stands for Visceral Adipose Tissue) is the fat that is stored inside your abdomen.

This fat fills the spaces within the abdominal cavity, surrounding the internal organs that are located there, such as the intestines, liver, and pancreas.

Normally Visceral Fat represents around 10% of the body's total fat stores. But in obese or overweight people fat will accumulate in the abdomen in larger quantities.

Subcutaneous Fat (SAT)

Subcutaneous Fat or SAT (for Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue) is the fat that lies beneath the skin, forming a layer between the muscles beneath it and the skin above it.

Normally 90% of your body fat is subcutaneous fat (SAT), and its main purpose is insulation; it maintains body heat by minimizing loss of internal heat.

It is also a storage area: SAT is stored on thighs, upper arm, neck, hips.

However, this fat is far less risky than the fat stored in your middle: it is the VAT or Abdominal fat that is an indicator of higher health risk.

Now, let's look into the health risks associated with abdominal fat (VAT):

Short List of Health Conditions Linked to Visceral Fat

Dementia and obesity

A study by Whitmer (2005) (1) tracked 10,276 men and women for 27 years and found a link between dementia (including Alzheimer's disease) and obesity in middle age.

Almost 7% of those who took part in the study were diagnosed with Dementia, and Whitmer concluded that "Obesity in middle age increases the risk of future dementia independently of comorbid conditions."

  • The risk of dementia was 74% higher in obese people (body mass index or BMI= 30) compared to people with normal weight (BMI 18.6 to 24.9)
  • In overweight people (BMI 25 to 29.9) the risk increased by 35%

We discuss Body Mass Index on our "BMI" webpage.

Read More, about BMI; visit our:

> > BMI Calculator

Obesity and Asthma

Capelo (2006) (2) studied asthma in a group of 83 women and found that Visceral Fat was negatively associated with asthma control and lung function.

This means that higher visceral fat levels worsened the condition.

Behren (2009) (3) in a study involving a large group of California teachers found that obese and overweight women with high levels of abdominal fat were at greater risk of severe asthma episodes than slimmer women (with waists narrower than 35 inches).

Apparently, the inflammation triggered by fatty tissue affects the lungs' airways.

man measuring waistline with tape measure
Measure your waistline with a tape measure to gauge body fat. Source

The link between cancer and visceral fat

Fat-related cancers are on the rise

Steele (2017) (4) pointed out that the cancer statistics of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) record an increase in cancer associated with obesity.

These types of cancers grew by 7% between 2005 and 2014.

On the other hand, cancers not related to obesity have dropped by 13% during the same period. This indicates that the obesity epidemic is becoming a serious problem.

Dohohoe (2011) (5) recognized that the mechanism by which obesity and fatty tissues cause cancer is not fully understood but confirmed that the link between fat and cancer exists.

The current hypothesis is that excessive fat causes an increase in the secretion of pro-inflammatory adipokines.

What are Adipokines?

Fatty tissue produces a group of proteins such as hormones, some of which act on the brain, and cytokines (small proteins that regulate the cells of the immune system). These are known collectively as Adipokines.

Some of them promote inflammation others counter it.

The problem is that low-grade chronic inflammation, and especially the "inflamed visceral adipose tissue, may influence the tumor microenvironment" (5).

This persistent inflammation alters insulin sensitivity, sex steroid, IGF hormone, and immune functions, all of which help to "promote the development and progression of cancer at a cellular level" (5).

Obesity-related cancers

Liver, colon, breast, and pancreatic cancer are all obesity-related.

Colorectal Cancer

Ning et al. (2010) (6) conducted a meta-analysis (a study that compares a group of studies using statistical tools) and found that an increase in Body Mass Index (or BMI) was proportional to the increase in colon cancer risk.

Jee-Yon Lee et al. (2014) (7) studied South Korean women and found that "visceral fat area is positively associated with the prevalence of colorectal cancer." Visceral fat increased the risk by 86% in comparison to leaner subjects.

Lee concluded that "This result suggests that visceral adiposity, at least in part, might directly affect carcinogenesis in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract."

Breast Cancer

According to Nagrani et al. (2016) (8), overweight and obese Indian women "were at increased Breast Cancer risk [...] Central obesity [...] increased the risk of both premenopausal and postmenopausal Breast Cancers."

The women with a BMI above 25 and a Waist-to-hip-ratio of 0.95 were within the risk group.

We discuss the Waist Size and the Waist-to-Hip Ratio in our "Waist Size Matters" webpage:

Read More about waist-to-hip-ratio and obesity:
> > Waist Size Matters

Lahmann et al. (2004) (9) analyzed the data from the EPIC study, which involved 73,542 premenopausal and 103,344 postmenopausal women from 9 European countries. They concluded that:

  • In premenopausal women, hip circumference was the only measure significantly related to breast cancer.
  • In postmenopausal women, general obesity is a significant predictor of breast cancer.

So a larger waistline, meaning abdominal obesity, increases the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.

Pancreatic Cancer

Bracci (2012) (10) reported that there is a positive association between "obesity ⁄ high BMI and pancreatic cancer risk", and a large waist-to-hip-ratio was also positively associated with an increased risk of this type of cancer.

Cardiovascular Disease

Cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease

Obesity is linked to heart disease (CVD or Cardiovascular Disease), and Visceral Fat causes an increase in total cholesterol, low-density LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. It also lowers the quantity of protective HDL cholesterol, increases blood pressure, and alters blood sugar (which besides its diabetic effect also raises blood pressure).

Veloso and Resende (2015) (11) looked at the link between visceral fat, atherosclerosis, and coronary artery disease and found that "Visceral Fat may be a cause of coronary risk factors, which may eventually develop into coronary stenosis."

They concluded that:

  • Subjects with visceral obesity had several other coronary risk factors, indicating that they had a high risk of developing coronary arterial lesions.
  • The accumulation of Visceral Fat causes atherosclerosis.
  • Visceral fat correlates with diabetes, atherosclerosis, and metabolic abnormalities associated with an increased risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
  • Visceral fat is an excellent predictor of cardiovascular risk.

Rosito et al. (2008) (12) analyzed data from The Framingham Heart Study, and found a significant correlation between visceral adiposity and cardiovascular diseases.

Després (2007) (13) stressed that the risk of developing cardiovascular disease is increased in individuals with abdominal obesity or Visceral Adipose Tissue (VAT): "excess VAT is accompanied by elevated triglycerides, reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, elevated blood pressure."

Matsuzawa (2014) (14) linked "visceral fat accumulation in the development of obesity-related diseases... because visceral fat accumulation causes... hypertension and dyslipidemia" (dyslipidemia is an alteration in blood lipids, i.e. cholesterol and triglycerides).

Cholesterol Level

Lupatelli et al. (2012) (15) studied 126 subjects with high blood lipids and found that "the amount of visceral fat correlates with cholesterol synthesis", and that "patients with a higher visceral fat area (VFA) had hihger levels of lathosterol."

Lathosterol is a cholesterol-like molecule that serves as an indicator of whole-body cholesterol synthesis. So higher lathosterol levels mean higher cholesterol values.

Visceral Fat Increases the Risk of Diabetes

A study by de Lemos (2012) (16) reported that "Having excess visceral fat and insulin resistance - but not being obese in and of itself - appears to put heavier patients at risk for prediabetes and diabetes."

The presence of visceral fat increases the risk by 60% to 268% in comparison to obese people lacking visceral fat.

Matsuzawa (2014) (14) also associated "visceral fat accumulation causes Type 2 diabetes," as did Despré (2007) (13): "excess Visceral Adipose Tissue is accompanied by... elevated fasting plasma sugar."

Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

The fat that accumulates in the abdomen, not only surrounds the vital organs located there, it also seems to promote Non-alcoholic Fatty liver (NAFLD): Ha (2015) (17) concluded that "visceral adiposity makes non-obese subjects more susceptible to NAFLD, compared with subcutaneous fat and BMI." This is interesting because these individuals were not obese, yet their abdominal fat made them more predisposed to suffer from NAFLD.

Closing Comments

Obesity Risk Factors

A high Body Mass Index or BMI, a wide waist (high waist-to-hip ratio), and visceral fat are all obesity risk factors.

The side effects of being overweight and the harmful effects of obesity are serious, ranging from cancer to diabetes and from asthma to dementia.

The dangers of visceral fat are often overlooked, but it is this fat, deeply embedded in the abdomen that is the root cause of many medical conditions.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle, losing weight (especially abdominal fat), exercising, and modifying eating habits can help combat this "big stomach disease" and improve the quality of life and lifespan of overweight individuals.

Our website has many useful pages that can help you shed weight and work towards a more fit and leaner self:

Read More, visit our:

> > Tips for a Flatter Belly

Taking Action to Reduce Belly Fat

A recent study involving Japanese men (Osato et al., 2019), (18) found that including seven nutrients in their diet (soluble dietary fiber, potassium, vitamin K, manganese, magnesium, folic acid, and pantothenic acid) and reducing the ingestion of monounsaturated fat, led to a reduction in their Visceral Fat levels.

Those seven nutrients are "abundant components in vegetable diets." Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, avocado, olive oil, and canola oil among other foods. They are good for your heart health. And should be consumed with moderation (19).

Taken together, seven micronutrients: soluble dietary fiber, manganese, potassium, magnesium, vitamin K, folic acid, pantothenic acid, alpha-tocopherol, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and n-3 polyunsaturated fat, which are abundant nutrients in a vegetable diet, had a significant inverse correlation to VFA. Only monounsaturated fat had a significant positive association with VFA. Ozato N, Saito S, Yamaguchi T, et al. (2019)

two overweight women view of rear and thick waist
Obesity, full hips, and wide waist are health risk factors.

References and Further Reading

(1) R. Whitmer, E. Gunderson, E. Barrett-Connor, C. Quesenberry, Jr, K. Yaffe, (2005). Obesity in middle age and future risk of dementia: a 27 year longitudinal population based study. BMJ. 2005 Jun 11; 330(7504): 1360. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.38446.466238.E0

(2) Capelo AV, et al. (2016). Visceral adiposity is associated with cytokines and decrease in lung function in women with persistent asthma. Rev Port Pneumol 2016 Sep-Oct;22(5):255-61. DOI: 10.1016/j.rppnen.2016.02.005. Epub 2016 Mar 29

(3) Julie Von Behren, et al. (2009). Obesity, Waist Size, and Prevalence of Current Asthma in the California Teachers Study Cohort. Thorax. 2009 Oct; 64(10): 889. 2009 Aug 25. DOI: 10.1136/thx.2009.114579

(4) Steele CB, Thomas CC, Henley SJ et al. (2017). Vital signs: trends in incidence of cancers associated with overweight and obesity - United States, 2005-2014. MMWR Morb. Mortal. Wkly Rep. (66), 1052-1058 (2017)

(5) C. Donohoe, S. Doyle, and J. Reynolds, (2011). Visceral adiposity, insulin resistance and cancer risk. Diabetol Metab Syndr. 2011; 3: 12. 2011 Jun 22. DOI: 10.1186/1758-5996-3-12

(6) Ning Y, Wang L, Giovannucci EL. (2010) A quantitative analysis of body mass index and colorectal cancer: findings from 56 observational studies. Obes. Rev. 11(1), 19-30 (2010).

(7) Jee-Yon Lee et al. (2014). Visceral Fat Accumulation Is Associated with Colorectal Cancer in Postmenopausal Women. PLoS One. 2014; 9(11): e110587. 2014 Nov 17. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110587

(8) R. Nagrani et al. (2016). Central obesity increases risk of breast cancer irrespective of menopausal and hormonal receptor status in women of South Asian Ethnicity. Eur J Cancer. 2016 Oct; 66: 153-161. DOI: 10.1016/j.ejca.2016.07.022

(9) Lahmann PH, (2004). Body size and breast cancer risk: findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer And Nutrition (EPIC). Int J Cancer. 2004 Sep 20;111(5):762-71

(10) Paige M. Bracci, (2012). Obesity and pancreatic cancer: overview of epidemiologic evidence and biologic mechanisms. Mol Carcinog. 2012 Jan; 51(1): 53-63. DOI: 10.1002/mc.20778

(11) Roever L, Veloso FC, Resende ES., (2015). Visceral Fat, Atherosclerosis and Coronary Artery Disease. Intern Med 5:188. DOI: 10.4172/2165-8048.1000188

(12) Guido A. Rosito et al. (2008). Pericardial Fat, Visceral Abdominal Fat, Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors, and Vascular Calcification in a Community-Based Sample - The Framingham Heart Study. 22 Jan 2008, Circulation. 2008;117:605-613

(13) Després JP, (2007). Cardiovascular disease under the influence of excess visceral fat. Crit Pathw Cardiol. 2007 Jun;6(2):51-9

(14) Yuji Matsuzawa, (2014). Obesity and metabolic syndrome: the contribution of visceral fat and adiponectin. Diabetes Management (2014) 4(4), 391-401 ISSN 1758-1907 391

(15) Lupattelli G., et al. (2012). Visceral fat positively correlates with cholesterol synthesis in dyslipidaemic patients. Eur J Clin Invest. 2012 Feb;42(2):164-70. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2362.2011.02572.x. Epub 2011 Jul 27

(16) de Lemos JA, et al. (2012). Dysfunctional adiposity and the risk of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes in obese adults. JAMA 2012; 308:1150-1159

(17) Ha Y, et al. (2015). Intimate association of visceral obesity with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in healthy Asians: A case-control study. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2015 Nov;30(11):1666-72. DOI: 10.1111/jgh.12996

(18) Ozato N, Saito S, Yamaguchi T, et al. (2019). Association between Nutrients and Visceral Fat in Healthy Japanese Adults: A 2-Year Longitudinal Study. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2698. Published 2019 Nov 7. DOI: 10.3390/nu11112698

(19) U.S. National Library of Medicine (2018). Facts about monounsaturated fats, MedlinePlus, accessed 01.Nov.2020.

About this Article

The Dangers of Belly Fat, A. Whittall

©2023, 05 Sept. 2023. Update scheduled for 05 Sept. 2025.

Tags: Belly Fat, Visceral Fat, Abdominal Fat, asthma, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, NAFLD (Fatty liver), dementia

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