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The Effects of Abdominal (Visceral) Fat

woman measuring her abdomen with measuring tape

When we weigh ourselves or look in the mirror, we don’t dig much deeper than the number on the scale or the image staring back at us. This is human nature, and we all do it. Similarly, when we visit our primary care physician for a yearly physical, we might learn more about the effects of our excess weight on various metabolic markers, like cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes. But by worrying about numbers alone, we often ignore the less obvious issues, like where the fat has accumulated. Visceral fat, the bad fat that accumulates around the abdomen is a serious concern and one that has not yet been given the importance it deserves.

A fascinating fact about abdominal fat and waist size is that the latter can predict heart disease more accurately than the ubiquitous body mass index or BMI. Female patients with a waist size over 35 inches and males with a greater than 40-inch waist ratchet up to a significantly higher risk of heart disease and other obesity-related conditions. One of the reasons for this is the pro-inflammatory effect visceral fat has throughout the body.

The Effect of Visceral Fat on the Heart

Inflammation can cause arteries to harden, the heart to work harder, and even trigger cardiac arrhythmias, the most common of which is atrial fibrillation or Afib. Over the long term, obesity and its effects can narrow arteries, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as the long-term risk of congestive heart failure. Interestingly, BMI is not as big a factor as one would expect. In fact, patients with BMIs within the normal range but carrying additional visceral fat around the abdomen remained at high risk, according to the American Heart Association.

The Effect of Visceral Fat on the Joints

Pro-inflammatory chemicals secreted by this visceral fat can also attack the joints throughout the body. When we think of joint pain from excess weight, our minds often stop at the mechanics. To be sure, excess weight will break down joints more quickly and it is estimated that for every extra pound of body weight you add 4 pounds of pressure on joints like the knees. But these joints are also under chemical assault from inflammation, speeding up the degradation.

These same inflammatory effects can also cause gastrointestinal problems, make us more prone to infection, and even promote certain forms of cancer.

So, next time you think about your weight or discuss it with your doctor, consider where your excess fat lies, not just the number on your scale. While excess fat anywhere in the body is not ideal, it is particularly problematic in the midsection. If you have a significant accumulation of fat in the abdomen, it is critical that you begin the conversation about supervised weight loss with your primary care physician or bariatric specialist.

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