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The Truth About Belly Fat

Mar 27, 2012

The Truth About Belly Fat

What you need to know -- and do -- about belly fat.

By Sonya Collins

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Belly fat – we all want less of it. But did you know that it may even be a problem for thin people, though they don't know it? And that some of it hides deep inside, around your inner organs, where it may pose a silent health threat if there's too much of it -- no matter what size you wear?

It's true: There's more to belly fat than your size.

Where did it come from? What's it doing to you? And what can you do about it?

Before you go any further, this is not about fat phobia. Your body needs some fat. And it's not about judging yourself or anyone else.

Instead, it's about geography -- where your fat is located -- even if you can't see it.

Not all fat is the same. “It behaves differently in different places,” says Carol Shively, PhD, a pathology professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine. And its behavior is the key to what your fat is doing to you.

People store most of their fat in two ways:

Just under the skin in the thighs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen. That's subcutaneous (under the skin) fat.

Deeper inside, around the vital organs (heart, lungs, digestive tract, liver, etc.) in the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. That's called "visceral" fat.

Subcutaneous fat is the fat we can see, and visceral fat is the fat we can’t.

Though many people are self-conscious about the fat they can see, research shows that hidden fat -- in people of any size -- may pose the bigger threat.

Like Another Organ

Fat doesn't just sit idle. It acts like an organ that secretes substances, says Kristen Hairston, MD, who is assistant professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

While visceral fat provides necessary cushioning around organs, Hairston says, it secretes "lots of nasty substances” that can be absorbed by the neighboring organs.

For instance, visceral fat cells release inflammatory compounds that can lead to insulin resistance and some cancers. Excess visceral fat is linked to greater risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and cancers of the breast, colon, and endometrium.

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