Belly fat is the shape of cardiovascular risk

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Editor, Harvard Health

Extra fat that accumulates around the abdomen goes by many names: beer belly, spare tire, love handles, apple shape, middle-age spread, and the more technical “abdominal obesity.” No matter what the name, it is the shape of risk.

Abdominal obesity increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, erectile dysfunction, and other woes. The danger zone is a waist size above 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.

As I describe in the April 2011 issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch, beer is not specifically responsible for a beer belly. What, then, is to blame? Calories. Take in more calories with food and drink than you burn up with exercise, and you’ll store the excess energy in fat cells.

Many studies indicate that people who store their extra fat around the midsection (apple shape) are at greater risk for heart and other problems than people who carry it around their thighs (pear shape). An analysis of 58 earlier studies covering over 220,000 men and women suggests that excess fat is harmful no matter where it ends up. This work was published in The Lancet.

Back to beer for a moment. Although it is not a special problem, its extra calories can add to abdominal obesity. A standard 12-ounce beer contains about 150 calories. In comparison, a 5½-ounce glass of wine or a 1½-ounce shot of hard liquor provides about 100 calories.

Many people who drink alcohol, like many who drink sugar-sweetened soda, tend to forget that these beverages contain calories. And they often don’t cut back on calories elsewhere to make up for them. So if you want to prevent a beer belly, wine belly, or soda belly, drink caloric beverages in moderation, if at all, and work them off with exercise.


  1. Bobby

    Very good information here!

    Would have never even thought of this and will let my step dad know as he has some of these issues.

  2. Belissima

    If losing weight were easy everybody would do it. Information and facts don’t seem to help much. It strikes me that it’s nearly an act of grace when somebody manages to lose weight and keep it off. Good luck.!

  3. Nick

    Belly fat is certainly a burden to carry around. The extra weight can make life very difficult. I need to lose about 10 kgs off my belly. I have noticed in many males who have belly fat that they also develop the condition gynecomastia.

    With so much excess in are lives, we ultimately pay the price with unfit ugly bodies. I am going to stick to drinking water for a change.

  4. Anonymous

    I recently watched the movie Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead where Joe Cross, who had a major beer belly did a juice detox and managed to not only lose the belly fat, but also get off all of the prescription medication he was on.

  5. Anonymous

    You know Dr. Simon, it’s not only just regular stomach fat which proves to be the spark plug which ignites so many health related issues.

    It’s also visceral fat, this demon causes diabetes and other heart related diseases.

    Obvioulsy for those who crave a longer life, eating smaller portion and healthier foods help.

    When you mix in exercise, you then have a cocktail to promote longevity. It’s not a sure fire recipe to live longer but it helps.

  6. smarko

    This has really opened my eyes. one think is, i do eat alot,
    and on top of that i take lots of beers,minimum of 20 bottles every day.
    hightime i quit drinking and returned to a healthy life style.Thanks alot simon

    Regards smarko

  7. alex

    Very good post. Makes me realize I need to hit the gym! Thank you Dr. Simon. Haven’t seen you in years!
    Dr. Nick Thomas

  8. Lisa

    I find this article very informative, I do not like to play the blame game but I am going to on this post. With all of this belly fat that we are accumulating is it caused by a lack of education or have we just ignored the education?

  9. nyumbanzuri

    This post is a very informative post.We have had so much theory around the belly fat topic. But you have relayed it here simply and clearly.
    Good post!!!

  10. Maree Le Favre

    Heart health is one of the major factors of premature death in western society and yet is still undervalued. Great to see some good content on the subject.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  11. Mark

    I recently read a new research on cardiovascular risk citing that prolonged seating causes up to 50% increase of risk for heart disease… in addition to calories and fat intake, folks need to also watch for their work habits.. we need to take frequent breaks, walk around, stretch.. many folks even like to work standing up most of the time with their computer desks risen..

    Mark J
    [URL removed by moderator]

  12. Toshiyuki

    Belly fat or “sick” fat is also associated with insulin resistance, which plays a major role in obesity-related diabetes. Those who had an immediate reduction in caloric intake saw dramatic improvement in insulin resistance. [URL removed by moderator]

  13. billy lee

    We know what shape is the shape of health. Research has led us to the conclusion that we can easily see when we are at risk. The body never lies. That is why overeating and obesity is a health issue that we can probably fix more readily than alcohol and drug abuse – the sign is literally beneath our nose. The Great Day Show is America’s greatest wellness program and provides remedies to a great cultural issue as if the cause of these ailments are obvious, and they are.

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