The Dangers of “Potbellies”

Fat is fat, right? It doesn’t matter where it is on your body, does it? Actually, it does. While being overweight is not healthy in any form, excess weight around the middle has specific dangers.

“Pear-shaped” individuals, or those who tend to carry weight on their hips and thighs, are not at the same risk as “apple-shaped” people. The fat on hips and thighs does not cover major internal organs, and in fact, fat cells in these key areas are essential for estrogen balance in post-menopausal women (the fat cells in the lower body convert “male” hormones into estrogen). But belly fat not only covers major organs; it can work its way between and among them, affecting their function and health.

Here is where the different kinds of fat make a difference. Subcutaneous fat is found directly beneath the skin, and feels soft and, for lack of a better word, squishy. The more dangerous type of fat lies deeper, feels firmer, and is called visceral fat. It is visceral fat in the belly that is the most dangerous.

Visceral fat lies beneath the abdominal muscles, so it isn’t responsible for covering up your abs. What it does do is lie close to and around the major abdominal organs such as the liver, pancreas, stomach, intestines, and spleen.

While the only way to measure the exact amount of this fat that you have is to get an MRI scan on your abdomen, you can rest assured that a trim waistline is not carrying much visceral fat. And if you have a large “potbelly,” it’s safe to assume you are probably harboring at least some visceral fat, possibly dangerous levels.

So what is so dangerous about this deeper fat? It seems that the greater the prevalence of visceral fat, the higher the risk of heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.

Type II diabetes is the type that comes on in adulthood. Visceral fat surrounds the abdominal organs, and the insulin-producing pancreas is vulnerable to the effects of this invasive fat.

Belly fat that is deep in the abdominal cavity can restrict the movement of the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle in the midriff that helps the lungs to function. Pressure on the diaphragm increases at night when the person is lying down, causing breathing difficulties that, when chronic, are called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is associated with higher risk of heart attack.

Heart disease risk is increased for those persons with potbellies. There is evidence that visceral fat stimulates the production of cytokines in the body. Cytokines, also components of allergic responses, cause inflammation. Inflammation has an effect on the arteries, contributing to circulatory problems such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.