"There's an increased risk of heart disease with increasing waist circumference or abdominal fat, and increased risk of overall mortality," warned Donald Hensrud, the chairman of the division of preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the medical editor-in-chief of the Mayo Clinic diet.
In other words: Lose the paunch, and you'll be healthier.
Two kinds of fat
Hensrud explained that there are two types of abdominal fat involved, subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
"Visceral fat is inside the abdominal wall; subcutaneous fan is outside the abdominal wall, the stuff you can grab. It's commonly believed that visceral fat is more harmful, associated with more health risks than subcutaneous fat," he said. "While that's generally true, it's not 100 percent the case. There's some evidence subcutaneous fat isn't as benign as some people think."
Causes of belly fat
There are several causes of belly fat.
Genetics can play a role. Being sedentary also contributes. Aging is another factor.
"As people age they tend to accumulate fat around the abdomen," Hensrud said, pointing to a decline in hormone levels (testosterone in men, estrogen in women) that results in the added weight.
Smoking, interestingly, can also be blamed.
"In general, smoking is associated with a lower body weight," he said. "But like alcohol, smokers also tend to carry their weight more in an abdominal distribution. So they might lose weight overall, but — this is generalizing — a smoker might be more likely to be thinner and have a little potbelly."
Genetics, inactivity, age, smoking ... and, of course, alcohol. Yes, we mean beer, and its high calorie content.
"Alcohol prevents the breakdown of fat to some extent, particularly around the abdomen," Hensrud explained. "There seems to be more of an effect from beer rather than wine."
Ways to lose belly fat
There are three ways to combat the beer gut, none of which is a particular revelation. It comes down to the same-old/same-old: diet and exercise.
Cut down on your drinking.
Especially the beer. If you're really serious about losing the beer gut, eliminate it altogether and watch your weight slowly drop. If you're not quite that motivated, maybe limit your drinking to weekends. It also would help to switch to light beer, which has around two-thirds the calories of regular beer.
Want to really go wild? If you must have a drink in your hand, try bottled water. Or fruit juice, but watch the caloric intake. Juice or water will keep you sober too.
"When people hold weight, whether it's in their bellies or legs or wherever, it's because of excess calories," said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "And one of the key places people get excess calories is alcohol."
Drinking can take you back to that other evil, eating. The two go hand-in-hand.
"Beer's making people eat supersized pieces of pizza or burritos as big as your head," she said.
A light beer can help.
"The average beer is probably 150 (calories) or more, and a light beer is 100 or less. If you figure somebody is drinking more than the two drinks a man is supposed to have in a night, that's over 100 calories plus they'll save."
Nothing goes with beer like greasy, fatty bar food. If you're scrapping the beer, you might as well do it right and eliminate those deep-fried Twinkies and beer nuts from your diet as well. But go beyond skipping the mozzarella sticks. Eat sensibly.
"At least one paper showed that not eating breakfast was associated with visceral fat accumulation," Hensrud says. "And other dietary patterns may affect fat distribution. One paper showed that a diet of 25 percent of total calories composed of fructose — high-fructose corn syrup, things like that — was associated with increased visceral weight gain."
Eliminate the high-calorie junk food, and your body will burn fat. And you'll lose weight. Eating more meals but with smaller portions — five a day instead of three, for example — can also help.
You can do 500 sit-ups a day, and your stomach muscles will get wonderfully strong. The problem is, they'll be hidden under your beer gut. Sit-ups won't make the fat disappear.
"You can't spot reduce," Hensrud said. "Either doing specific exercise, crunches, or wearing one of these belts around the middle things, it doesn't work."
On the other hand, when you do start to lose weight, you may notice it first in your tummy. Hensrud said that visceral fat seems to be more metabolically active, so it's deposited and broken down more readily than fat in other places.
"So if people lose weight, they tend to lose it a little bit more readily around the middle," he explained.
He also pointed out two studies that showed people who didn't lose weight during an exercise program still lost visceral fat in the abdomen.
"Perhaps they added a little muscle elsewhere and broke down a little abdomen fat, but the bottom line was they didn't lose weight."
The best exercises are those that reduce total body fat, cardiovascular and aerobic programs. Running, swimming, cycling and tennis are all for burning off the fat. And it doesn't have to be every day; 30 minutes a day, three or four times a week will result in noticeable weight loss. Exercise also improves your metabolism.
As for those expensive gut-busting machines sold on late-night infomercials, they're a waste of time and money. Forget about them.
And if running and cycling are too strenuous, take an easier route: Go for a long, brisk walk. To the store. To buy some fruit and vegetables.