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Secret Side Effects of Belly Fat, Says Science

They can be fatal, and you probably don't know about them.

The popular conceptions of belly fat may make it sound cute—think St. Nick and Instagram-driven appreciation about Matt Damon's "dad bod"—but there are few more sinister agents when it comes to your health. Belly fat, medically known as "visceral fat," isn't just an aesthetic concern. It's especially dangerous to your health, and it's potentially deadly in ways you probably don't realize. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Have "Long" COVID and May Not Even Know It.


What Is Visceral Fat?

measuring belly

Unlike subcutaneous fat—the jiggly fat under the skin that you can grab or pinch—you can't feel visceral fat. It surrounds organs deep within the abdomen, like the stomach, liver and intestines. The more visceral fat you have, the higher your chance of developing certain medical problems.


Why Is Belly Fat Dangerous?

Obese woman

Scientists say the abdomen is a particularly dangerous place to store fat. That's because visceral fat seems to increase the production of inflammatory substances in the body, and its proximity to vital organs like the heart and liver can deposit those toxins there, leading to dangerous consequences.

"Research suggests that fat cells—particularly abdominal fat cells—are biologically active," says Harvard Medical School. "It's appropriate to think of fat as an endocrine organ or gland, producing hormones and other substances that can profoundly affect our health."

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Secret Side Effects of Too Much Belly Fat

Overweight woman discussing test results with doctor in hospital.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, excess visceral fat raises your risk of serious metabolic disorders, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, a condition in which too much fat builds up in the liver, preventing it from clearing the body of toxins and metabolizing the fats and carbs you consume.

You may have deduced that excess fat anywhere isn't good for your heart, liver or diabetes risk. But you may not know that excess belly fat is associated with an increased risk of several cancers. That's according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which says those cancers include:

  • Colorectal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Breast cancer (after menopause)
  • Uterine cancer

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How Much Is Too Much Belly Fat?

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat.

You may technically be at appropriate body weight and BMI (body mass index), but your waistline could still place you at an elevated cancer risk. "Even people at a healthy BMI may be at increased risk if they have too much visceral fat," says the American Institute for Cancer Research.

According to the AICR, a waistline of 31.5 inches or more indicates higher cancer risk. For men, a waistline of 37 inches or more indicates high risk.

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How Can I Reduce Belly Fat?

In a word: Exercise. "Exercise seems to work off belly fat in particular because it reduces circulating levels of insulin—which would otherwise signal the body to hang on to fat—and causes the liver to use up fatty acids, especially those nearby visceral fat deposits," says Kerry Stewart, Ed.D., director of clinical and research physiology at Johns Hopkins.

Following a healthy diet is important, but dieting alone won't reduce belly fat. For that and other reasons, experts like the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association say you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking, dancing, or gardening) or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (like running, cycling, or swimming) every week. And now that you've got a great foundation, don't miss these additional 19 Weight Loss Foods That Really Work.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael