Belly fat in women: Taking — and keeping — it off
What does your waistline say about your health? Find out why belly fat is more common after menopause, the danger it poses — and what to do about it.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
An expanding waistline is sometimes considered the price of getting older. For women, this can be especially true after menopause, when body fat tends to shift to the abdomen.
Yet an increase in belly fat does more than make it hard to zip up your jeans. Research shows that belly fat also carries serious health risks. The good news? The threats posed by belly fat can be reduced.
What's behind belly fat
Your weight is largely determined by how you balance the calories you eat with the energy you burn. If you eat too much and exercise too little, you're likely to carry excess weight — including belly fat.
However, aging also plays a role. Muscle mass might diminish slightly with age, while fat increases. Loss of muscle mass also decreases the rate at which your body uses calories, which can make it more challenging to maintain a healthy weight.
Many women also notice an increase in belly fat as they get older — even if they aren't gaining weight. This is likely due to a decreasing level of estrogen, which appears to influence where fat is distributed in the body.
The tendency to gain or carry weight around the waist — and have an "apple" rather than a "pear" shape — might have a genetic component as well.
Why belly fat is more than skin deep
The trouble with belly fat is that it's not limited to the extra layer of padding located just below the skin (subcutaneous fat). It also includes visceral fat — which lies deep inside your abdomen, surrounding your internal organs.
Although subcutaneous fat poses cosmetic concerns, visceral fat is linked with far more dangerous health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Abnormal cholesterol
- Breathing problems
Research also has associated belly fat with an increased risk of premature death — regardless of overall weight. In fact, some studies have found that even when women were considered a normal weight based on standard body mass index (BMI) measurements, a large waistline increased the risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
April 21, 2016
See more In-depth
- Palmer BF, et al. The sexual dimorphism of obesity. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology. 2015;402:113.
- Halter JB, et al. Menopause and midlife health changes. In: Hazzard's Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology. 6th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2009. http://www.accessmedicine.com. Accessed March 8, 2016.
- Bray GA, et al. Obesity in adults: Prevalence, screening, and evaluation. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed March 4, 2016.
- Understanding adult obesity. Weight-Control Information Network. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/weight-control/understanding/Pages/understanding-adult-overweight-and-obesity.aspx. Accessed March 8, 2016.
- Losing weight. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/WeightManagement/LosingWeight/Losing-Weight_UCM_307904_Article.jsp#.Vt5ITOZjZDQ. Accessed March 7, 2016.
- Assessing your weight and health risk. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/risk.htm. Accessed March 7, 2016.
- Vatrella A. Abdominal adiposity and lung function in women. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. In press. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0939475315302076. Accessed March 4, 2016.
- Cerhan JR, et al. A pooled analysis of waist circumference and mortality in 650,000 adults. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2014;89:335.
- Staiano AE, et al. Body mass index versus waist circumference as predictors of mortality in Canadian adults. International Journal of Obesity. 2012;36:1450.
- Carlsson AC, et al. Prediction of cardiovascular disease by abdominal obesity measures is dependent on body weight and sex — Results from two community based cohort studies. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. 2014;24: 891.
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines. Accessed March 8, 2016.
- Shah RV, et al. Diet and adipose tissue distributions: The multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. 2016;26:185.
- Metabolic syndrome. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/book/export/html/4951. Accessed March 7, 2016.
- McClure CK, et al. Breastfeeding and subsequent maternal visceral adiposity. Obesity. 2011;19:2205.
- Jensen MD (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 10, 2016.