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, what dangers 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 can do 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 cut down to size.

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 pack on excess pounds — including belly fat.

However, aging also plays a role. Muscle mass typically diminishes 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 — 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:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Colorectal cancer

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.

Jun. 08, 2013 See more In-depth