Belly Fat & Heart Disease

That “spare tire” you may have around your abdomen needs to go if you want to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.  A six year new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology  suggests that fat located deep within the abdomen – belly fat – is associated with leading to an increased risk for heart disease as opposed to people who have more visible fat directly under the skin.

Body fat is distributed throughout the body.  Fat that is found and stored directly beneath the skin is call subcutaneous fat.  Subcutaneous fat does not appear to have much of an effect on heart disease risk. 

Visceral fat or belly fat is fat stored deep within the abdominal cavity surrounding the organs within that area of the body.  This type of fat is more metabolically active and poses a greater risk of increasing major chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and stroke.

It has been known from previous studies that people who carry excess belly fat around their midsection face a higher risk of heart disease compared to people who have fat elsewhere on the body.  This new study adds to this knowledge that where fat is located makes a difference health-wise but further suggests that the density of the stomach or belly fat is just as important as how much fat a person has. 

The researchers sought to determine if there was a link between anatomical changes in belly fat both in volume (quantity) and density and if this affected changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors over the six year study period.  To assess how much abdominal fat had accumulated, the density, and the location of it, the researchers reviewed CT abdominal scans of 1,106 participants from the Framingham Heart Study.

The participants’ average age was 45 years.  Measured was both subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.  What was found was participants had a 22 percent increase in subcutaneous fat and a 45 percent increase in visceral or belly fat inside the abdominal cavity.

Discovered was that increases in the amount of fat and decreases in fat density were linked to a higher risk for heart disease.  With each additional pound of fat from baseline to follow-up was associated with a new onset of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and metabolic syndrome.  Metabolic syndrome is when a person has a cluster of at least three of the following conditions at the same time – obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL or “good” cholesterol, high fasting blood glucose, and high blood pressure.

Participants who had increases in belly fat deep within the abdominal cavity had substantial increases in metabolic risk factors for metabolic syndrome, putting a person at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.  In essence, carrying fat deep with the abdomen, is thought to be more dangerous than the subcutaneous fat stored directly beneath the skin which is often located on the hips, thighs, and buttocks. 

This study points to the importance of identifying the location and type of body fat which can provide valuable information.  Traditionally the body mass index (BMI) has been used to assess a person’s health and weight status, not taking into regard the distribution of fat on a person’s body.  The BMI is only calculating body fat based on a person’s weight and height.  Abdominal tissue scanning would provide additional important information about assessing cardiovascular risk that the BMI does not address.  An abdominal CT scan could provide a much more accurate assessment of the density, location and amount of fat found throughout the body giving the healthcare team an advantage on guiding a person towards better health. 

The researchers with the study point out because this is an observational study they cannot make any casual links even though previous studies do back up this information of how abdominal fat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.