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One Major Side Effect of Having Excess Belly Fat, New Study Says

Here's another reason to whittle your middle for better health.
FACT CHECKED BY Cheyenne Buckingham

Obesity and excess weight has been linked in previous studies to a higher risk of certain cancers, and a new study in the journal PLOS Medicine suggests higher amounts of body fat can increase your chances of developing cancers of the digestive system as well.

Researchers looked at data from a large database called the U.K. Biobank, which collects information on individuals' genetic predisposition to disease and the influence of environmental factors on health. They assessed whether genetic predisposition to having increased fat mass or a high body mass index (BMI) also meant you'd have a higher risk of several cancer types.

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They found there was a link to high BMI and increased risk of cancers of the digestive system, particularly the liver, stomach, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer. That may be because body fat may play a role in the development of specific cancers, they concluded.

Although many people tend to think of fat as a bunch of benign cells packed together—envisioning fat in the body as similar to a chunk of fat on a steak, for example—that's not actually true, according to Filomena Trindade, M.D., of the Institute of Functional Medicine.

She adds that fat cells play an important role in carrying out several other functions, including inflammation, immunity, and hormone regulation. When there's an abundance of fat cells these processes can go into overdrive, which may cause cells to divide more often—a process that increases the risk that cancer cells can develop.

Belly fat is particularly problematic, previous research has noted. For example, a study in the European Journal of Cardiology found that excess abdominal fat can raise the risk of repeat heart attacks and strokes, due to increased inflammation. That study's lead author, Hanieh Mohammadi, M.D., from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, says maintaining a healthy waist circumference can be a major way to prevent serious issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer.

"In general, if you want better heart health but also better health in general, focus on reducing your belly fat," she says. "Even reducing by a small amount could have significant benefits."

Trindade suggests strategies that can help include reducing stress—which has been shown to increase belly fat through a surge of the hormone cortisol—as well as getting quality sleep, staying hydrated, and eating nutritionally dense foods.

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Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and nutrition. Read more about Elizabeth
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