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Belly fat can signal an unhealthy heart, from the Harvard Women's Health Watch

Carrying a little extra fat around the middle can be hard on a woman's ego—especially during swimsuit season—but it's even harder on her heart. The November 2012 Harvard Women's Health Watch examines the connection between abdominal fat and heart health.

Extra body fat increases the risk for conditions that contribute to heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Fat deposited in the abdomen—called visceral fat—lies deep enough to surround organs and disrupt their function.

"The fat around the belly is particularly metabolically active, meaning that it produces a number of factors that increase the risks for heart disease," explains Dr. Paula Johnson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Those factors include hormones and other substances that promote inflammation, raise blood pressure, alter cholesterol levels, and interfere with normal blood vessel activity.

The metabolic syndrome is a constellation of factors that has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It includes:

  • waist measurement of 35 inches or more (40 inches in men)
  • triglyceride (blood fat) level of 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher
  • HDL ("good") cholesterol level of less than 50 mg/dL (40 mg/dL in men)
  • blood pressure reading of 130/85 mm Hg or higher
  • fasting blood sugar level of 100 mg/dL or higher.

Three of these risk factors signals metabolic syndrome. A simple waist circumference measurement can be a warning sign a person has it, Dr. Johnson says.

There are several ways to banish this particularly unhealthy type of fat, or prevent it from being deposited in the first place:

  • Cut back on candy, cookies, white bread and other foods made with highly processed grains or full of added sugar.
  • Trim portion sizes to help lose weight, or at least not gain any more.
  • Stay active and exercise every day.

Read more tips in the full-length article: "Fight fat to help your heart"


Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • Breakthrough: Robotic surgery
  • Ask the doctor: How can I treat dry eyes?
  • Ask the doctor: What is causing my vaginal itching?
  • Fight fat to help your heart
  • The challenges of living alone
  • Making smart screening decisions: Part 3: Cardiac screening tests
  • In the journals: Incorporating balance into everyday life prevents falls
  • In the journals: Lifestyle changes help keep weight off after menopause
  • In the journals: Drugs may not be best for mild high blood pressure
  • In the journals: Meditation eases loneliness

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.