Abdominal Obesity–a New Marker for Health Risk

The Body Mass Index (BMI) testing is a widely used simple calculation that helps assess the amount of total body fat in a person; it’s the clinical standard to determine if a person is at higher risk for certain health risks associated with obesity. You can calculate your own here. What your BMI doesn’t tell you, however, is how that body fat is distributed, and where it may be concentrated.


As it turns out, according to newly published research led by Dr. Wei Bao at the University of Iowa, only using BMI to determine if someone is at risk of health complications due to being overweight or obese is insufficient for capturing total health risks.


The research describes a newer category of obesity: central obesity. This is defined by a concentration of fat around the abdomen, with a waist size of 35 inches or more. What is alarming is that those who have central obesity may fall within a normal, healthy BMI range. Those who fall under this category are therefore not being diagnosed with obesity and may not be aware that they are at an increased risk for numerous health complications.


The study emphasizes that those with central obesity and normal BMIs are neglected and, “…receive little attention in the setting of risk reduction strategies, such as lifestyle modifications and other interventions”.


In this research, it was found that there was a significant increase of overall mortality rate of women over the age of 49 with central obesity. The study followed 156,000 women between the ages of 50 to 79 all over the U.S. over a period of 24 years.


It was found that postmenopausal women with central obesity often have lower physical activity levels, higher energy intake, and lower diet quality, as well as are smokers. Although the study does not examine the risk of developing central obesity for those who fall into those categories outlined, it is important to consider the implications, and consider this when making lifestyle choices that impact your health.

The study found that postmenopausal women with central obesity have a 31% higher mortality risk. This is comparable to the 30% increased mortality rate of those who are obese. The two main causes of death within this group was found to be cardiovascular disease (which contributed to 29.6% of deaths), and obesity-related cancers, including colon and breast cancer (which contributed to 27% of deaths). This is because the type of fat accumulated in those with central obesity has been previously found to be linked with chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and increased production of insulin. Together, these three can cause diabetes, as well as the hardening of arterial walls. They also found that within the population of those who have central obesity, they have a decreased amount of protective adipose tissue, as well as protective abdominal muscle, which can also lead to an overall increased risk of mortality.


The study also found that women who are overweight or obese but do not have central obesity saw reduced overall mortality risk.


The most important conclusion of this study is that only using BMI to asses obesity is not enough. The assessment of abdominal circumference is just as crucial in determining whether a person may face higher health risks associated with obesity.


For those who have central obesity, it is important to understand that weight loss is not targeted. This means that it is not possible to only direct efforts at losing weight in one area of the body, and that wholistic approaches must be taken to help lose abdominal fat associated with central obesity. Developing healthy diet habits is very important step towards healthy weight loss, as well as engaging in regular physical activity to maintain those successes as well as a healthier heart.


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