Jelly-belly not worth the risks

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This is one of those pot and kettle things — I’m in no position to point fingers. But whenever I reach for a tempting sweet I see the same image: Yellow, gummy, jiggly, and wholly unpleasant.

Years ago my legal medicine class took a field trip to the morgue. Viewing forensic autopsies wasn’t exactly on my bucket list, but I’m glad I did. Each time I ogle the Reese’s at Super 1, I think of how that otherwise well-proportioned, 45-year-old man’s thick layers of belly fat glistened, as the medical examiner struggled to find his organs betwixt and between.

Sorry to ruin your appetite. More than just ugly, belly fat is dangerous, more so than fat stored on the hips or buttocks.

Why? Visceral, a.k.a. intra-abdominal fat or organ fat, differs from subcutaneous (right under the skin) fat in one important way: it’s packed between vital organs, interfering with their proper function.

Belly fat thus impacts health more negatively than other types of fat, putting especially those aged 50 and older at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, metabolic problems, osteoporosis, pancreatic cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. In women it also increases risk of breast cancer.

Yes, a little jelly belly can do all that.

Harvard scientists report visceral fat also secretes immune system chemicals called cytokines. These biochemicals can create deleterious effects on the cardiovascular system, insulin sensitivity in cells, and blood clotting.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that belly fat is easier to lose than are other types (or so they tell us). Yeah, you guessed it: diet and exercise. No worries; it doesn’t take an Ironman commitment.

Don’t expect much from crunches and sit-ups; those may strengthen muscles, but they don’t touch visceral fat. Old-fashioned walking, jogging, playing tennis, or swimming works much better. Just do it regularly (even 90 minutes a week had an effect in a 2009 University of Alabama study) and lifelong.

Turning to food, a Johns Hopkins study showed simply avoiding carbohydrates worked well. Reese’s, obviously, but foods such as breads, chips, and pastas tend to be the big belly culprits. Good foods to lower belly fat are fruits, veggies, and whole grains (think fiber). Just substituting those for the bready varieties works belly magic and lowers calories.

The Harvard Family Health Guide — and personal trainers and nutritionists — recommend reducing portion size to lose weight. At first that may leave you hungry, but grabbing an apple or dried fruit can fill a belly without hurting it. After a little while, the reduced portions start to feel like enough.

When to worry? It’s individual, but according to AARP, waists of 35 inches or larger for women, and 40 inches or more for men are a call to action. “Waist” should be measured just above the hipbone.

Even a 5 to 10 percent drop in belly fat has significant effect and can dramatically reduce dangerous levels of insulin and fluctuating hormones. For more information about visceral fat search “belly fat” at Health.Harvard.edu.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who needs to follow her own advice. Contact her at sholeh@cdapress.com.

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