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Anatomy of a Potbelly

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Anatomy of a Potbelly

By Anjula Razdan, Experience Life

Summer might be over, but don’t let your waistline go to the dogs just yet. Looking good at the beach isn’t the only reason to flatten our tummies. Recent studies in fat distribution are giving us an even more pressing incentive to reduce our rounding stomachs: our health.

It turns out that abdominal fat (more so than fat in other areas of the body) has a major impact on whether we stay healthy and vital or put ourselves at increased risk for several chronic diseases.

First off, we’re not talking about your typical tummy fat, so don’t fret about a little paunch. All of us need a bit of internal belly fat, says nutritional expert Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH. “We need stomach fat to help cushion organs, maintain internal body temperature, and it’s also a good source of backup fuel,” says Peeke, author of Body for Life for Women: A Woman’s Plan for Physical and Mental Transformation (Rodale, 2005) and Fight Fat After Forty (Penguin, 2000).

The problem is that not all abdominal fat is created equal. It is the type of belly fat -and the places it’s located- that determine whether it’s likely to lead to health problems.

Two Types of Fat
Ringing all our midsections are two different kinds of fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous, which means “under the skin,” is the fat we can see and pinch the jiggly stuff most of us lament in our bathroom mirrors. But, surprisingly, we need to worry less about subcutaneous fat than we do the visceral stuff.

Visceral, which means “pertaining to the soft organs in the abdomen,” is the fat stored deep in our abdomens around the intestines, kidneys, pancreas and liver. This is the stuff that tends to make our tummies protrude in classic “beer belly” fashion.

While visceral fat and subcutaneous fat look much the same from a surgeon’s point of view (they have the same consistency and yellowish color), they look different under a microscope, and they function very differently on a biological level.

Subcutaneous fat is often described as a “passive” fat because it functions primarily as a storage repository. It requires a fair bit of metabolic intervention from other body systems and glands in order to be processed for energy. Visceral fat, by contrast, is considered very “active” because it functions much like a gland itself: It is programmed to break down and release fatty acids and other hormonal substances that are then directly metabolized by the liver.

When the fatty acids that are produced in our abdominal organs go directly to the liver, it “produces an unfavorable metabolic environment and triggers the liver to do all sorts of bad things,” says health expert Marie Savard, MD, author, with Carol Svec, of the recent book The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness: The Apples and Pears Approach to Losing Weight, Living Longer and Feeling Healthier (Atria, 2006). “Excess visceral fat can lead to increased blood sugar and higher insulin levels, and it also generates increased inflammation, all of which are the perfect set-up for diabetes, certain types of cancers and stroke.”

Abdominal obesity is a key risk factor for insulin resistance and “metabolic syndrome.” The chronic inflammation that results from excessive visceral fat has also been linked to heart disease, and a recent Kaiser Permanente study of 6,700 participants showed that people with higher rates of abdominal fat are 145 percent more likely to develop dementia.

Visceral fat may be located in our abdomens, Peeke says, but it can wreak all sorts of damage that goes far beyond our bellies. “No other fat in the body does that,” she says. Which is precisely why we need to keep the amount of fat in our abdomens under control.

When we don’t, the result may be a belly that’s literally packed with fat, a phenomenon that can lead to a surprisingly solid protrusion one with deceptively little pinchable fat on the surface.

Carrying excess visceral fat “is like trying to pack 7 to 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag,” says Silver Spring, Md. based bariatric surgeon Gary C. Harrington, MD. “There’s no more room for things to grow in there, so it becomes very tight.”

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Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.


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10:35AM PDT on Sep 15, 2011

great post, thanks!

10:05PM PDT on May 25, 2011

The facts on the risks associated with abdominal fat are, well, a little frightening. My husband and I walk every day, but other than that our fitness is limited, and our income is such that we can only afford the bad-for-you food :( Hopefully in years to come we can reverse this damage!

10:58AM PDT on May 25, 2011

This is relevant to me since I've been blimping out lately. Don't ask me how since I can barely afford to buy food anymore with the economy and my income being what it is, but anyway...Thanks for the article.

7:45AM PDT on May 25, 2011

LOSING that tummy fat seems hard for me to do, even with exercise and portion control and good-for-you foods. I am just tummy-heavy. But getting stronger and better fit with exercise.

11:16AM PDT on May 24, 2011

panic time. yay!

6:26AM PST on Feb 24, 2011

forgive me -- I have so little time, and I want to use it for activism, so just here for points for the animals ...

9:49PM PDT on Oct 8, 2010

my eyes hurt. thanks for posting. i recently gained much weight in the midsection and am looking into it.

9:29AM PDT on Jul 28, 2010

I know that our bodies are very different but what actually works is : juices, yes juices aaaall kinds of them. Buy your not expensive one at Walmart for $ 40.00 and go crazy. Make your delicious juice in the morning, you get hungry again well have some more, add different kind of fruit, veggies, yogurt, a little bit of honey - agave - I mean go crazy and do it for a couple of days, nothing wrong is going to happen to you because you are still having food in your bellies. Be patience and enjoy your day with some smooth music. I do this even when I am at work, for lunch? oh yes ! and now that the summer is here, I drink lots of liquids - lemonade,cold green tea with a slice of lemon etc. it works for me I HOPE will do the same for you, have a fantastic day and feel gorgeous !!

12:06PM PST on Mar 7, 2010

Needless to say, I was interested in this article~

1:09PM PST on Feb 26, 2010


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