We hear all the time about menopause and weight gain, but things can get confusing when it comes to the effect extra pounds have on our health.
Doctors often still focus on BMI, which many experts have stopped using because it’s not a trustworthy predictor of health. Plus, BMI doesn’t differentiate between types of body fat. The truth is, there is a type of menopause-related fat that you should worry about, and there’s an easy trick to find out if you’re at risk.
Two Types Of Body Fat
As Harvard Health explains, not all fat is created equal. Evidence continues to emerge showing that location matters when it comes to body fat.
“Saddlebags and ballooning bellies are not equivalent,” according to Harvard Health. That’s because there are two types of body fat—visceral and subcutaneous. And they have different effects on your body.
The fat that you can pinch with your fingers on your arms, tummy, hips, or butt is subcutaneous fat. It’s located just beneath the skin. Visceral fat is located deep within the abdomen and is the kind to worry about.
The body fat in most people breaks down to about 90 percent subcutaneous and 10 percent visceral. But don’t let that small percentage fool you.
Visceral fat lies beneath the firm abdominal wall in the spaces surrounding your organs, like the liver and intestines. It can be a major factor in a variety of health issues.
Visceral fat is also stored in an area known as the omentum, which Harvard Health describes as “an apron-like flap of tissues that lies under the belly muscles and blankets the intestines.” As the omentum fills with fat, it gets harder and thicker.
How Visceral Fat Can Affect Our Health
As we transition into middle age, the proportion of fat to body weight increases more for women than for men. And our fat storage starts to migrate to the upper body instead of our hips and thighs.
Even if you don’t gain any weight, you may notice significant changes in your body shape during menopause. Even if your hips and thighs were historically your typical weight-gain spots, during midlife your waist may instead gain inches as visceral fat expands your waistline.
Since the mid-1990s, body fat research has significantly increased our knowledge about how the two types of fat operate in our bodies. Body fat used to be regarded as blobs sitting in our bodies that were waiting to be used for energy. But recent research has proven that visceral fat cells are biologically active, and scientists have realized that “the fat cell is an endocrine organ, secreting hormones and other molecules that have far-reaching effects on other tissues,” according to Harvard Health.
As a result, scientists believe visceral is the culprit behind a variety of diseases.
“Subcutaneous fat produces a higher proportion of beneficial molecules, and visceral fat a higher proportion of molecules with potentially deleterious health effects. Visceral fat makes more of the proteins called cytokines, which can trigger low-level inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease and other chronic conditions. It also produces a precursor to angiotensin, a protein that causes blood vessels to constrict and blood pressure to rise,” explains the Harvard Health report on belly fat.
The chronic conditions where visceral fat is implicated include cardiovascular disease, dementia, asthma, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer.
An Easy Method To Measure Visceral Fat
Visceral fat can be measured in a number of ways including a CT scan or a full-body MRI, but those tests are expensive and not easily accessible. Luckily, there’s an easier and totally free way to do it.
“The waist-to-hip ratio is felt to be a more accurate measurement of your health than your weight or your BMI,” said Dr. Mary Claire Haver, a nutritionist and board-certified OB/GYN, in a recent video.
All you need for an at-home “gut check” is to check your waist-hip ratio with a tape measure and some math.
- Measure your waist at its smallest point which is usually around the level of the belly button.
- Measure your hips at the widest point.
- Divide your waist size by your hip size.
If your waist-to-hip ratio is .85 or less, you’re “doing pretty well.” However, if you have a ratio of 1.0 or greater, that typically means you have a “higher risk for health problems.”
If your ratio is above that 1.0 mark, there are things you can do to lose and prevent visceral belly fat. The good news is, visceral fat is more readily metabolized into fatty acids. So, it should respond more efficiently to a good diet and regular exercise compared to that stubborn fat on the hips and thighs.
Tips for attacking visceral fat include 30-minutes of exercise per day, eating a balanced diet, not smoking, and getting good sleep. Of course, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor. But if you’re thinking you can get a quick fix at the plastic surgeon, that won’t cut it—liposuction doesn’t address the visceral fat inside the abdominal wall, only the subcutaneous kind.