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Why you need to keep an eye on belly fat

We all have a few trouble spots that seem to defy good diet and regular workouts—be it your belly, thighs, arms or backside. But why? What genetic factors decide our fat stores, and can we change them? And what, if any, effect does this fat placement have on overall health?

“Every body has its own metabolic rate and ideal body mass index, so it can be difficult to generalize,” said Dr. Christopher Still, director of Geisinger’s Obesity Institute. “However, research has proven that there is a point where those fat stores begin to negatively impact your body’s internal systems.”

Here’s what you need to know about trouble spots and their impact on overall health. 

How trouble spots happen

There are many factors involved in excess fat placement, including gender, hormone levels and metabolism. 

“Starting at a young age, girls have a considerably higher percentage of body fat than boys, because estrogen boosts the creation of fat cells,” said Dr. Still. “As puberty begins and hormone levels get higher, those differences become more obvious.” 

Gender-specific fat stores in women include the thighs, pelvis and hips, while men experience it in the stomach, causing those tell-tale potbellies. However, it’s important to remember that hormone levels vary, so those with more testosterone may see more belly fat, and those with more estrogen may see more fat in the hips and thighs. 

Age is also a factor, as it determines hormone production. As men age, their testosterone level drops, slowing the burn of fat cells and making them more prone to weight gain in the midsection. In post-menopausal women, a decrease in estrogen and increase in testosterone might cause some weight gain in the same place. 

These factors can’t be changed naturally. However, in some cases, a doctor may suggest hormone therapy. 

How do individual trouble spots affect overall health? 

Regardless of where you gain weight, gaining too much poses serious health risks. 

“Fat cells can cause inflammation in our joints and compound the damage of the increased pressure extra weight adds,” said Dr. Still. “In addition, excess fat can lead to obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart diseasehigh blood pressure, sleep apnea and some cancers.”

However, some trouble spots are more detrimental than others. 

Belly fat is known as a visceral fat, meaning it lies deep inside your abdomen and surrounds major organs. This type of fat tissue causes more inflammation and increases the risk for diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea, and fatty liver disease, among others. 

On the other hand, the stubborn weight in the hips and thighs historically carried by women is known as subcutaneous fat because it’s just below the skin; possesses a lower risk of developing other medical problems.  With the epidemic of obesity in this country, women and children are producing for visceral adipose stores, hence developing more medical problems relating to overweight or obesity.  

The good news is, when we lose weight, we tend to lose visceral fat stores first. In fact, even a small amount of weight loss, 5 or 10 pounds, has significant improvement in weight-related medical problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, and fatty liver disease.

“In all, improving your diet and increasing your physical activity is the best way to begin your weight loss journey. Your doctor can help pinpoint your goal weight and ideal body mass index to maintain good health for years to come,” Dr. Still said.

Christopher Still, DO, is a gastroenterologist and internist at Geisinger. For more information, click here.
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