How to Know If Your Belly Fat is the Risky Kind

Not all belly fat is equal

Which type of belly fat are you carrying?. Robin Lynne Gibson / Getty Images

Whether it's on the latest magazine cover, during a doctor's appointment, or even just in the department store change room, belly fat seems to be getting a lot of our attention these days. But how do you know whether your personal stockpile of abdominal fat is a longevity threat, or just a cosmetic nuisance?

As we get older, fat tends to migrate towards the mid-section of our body, whether we're male or female.

Many women notice a "menopot", or thickening of their waistline after menopause. This can be true even if they traditionally had a flat tummy, and haven't gained any weight.

While subcutaneous fat sits just beneath your skin and is not considered dangerous, visceral fat that surrounds your internal organs is hormonally-active tissue associated with insulin resistance and a host of other serious problems. Visceral fat can lead to diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that increase your chances of cardiovascular disease, even death.

One way to assess your belly fat risk is to measure your waist-to-hip ratio; a ratio of 0.8 or less in women, or 1.0 or less in men is considered within a healthy range. Other methods of measuring visceral fat include computerized tomography which uses multiple x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound technology.

Get the answer lying down: In her book Fit to Live, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland's medical school Pamela Peeke, MD, has this advice on a low-tech way to determine which kind of six-pack you're packing:

  • Lie down on your back
  • Feel for your pelvic bones with your index fingers
  • Contract your abdominal muscle as if you were lifting something very heavy
  • Feel your abdomen from side to side

Peeke writes that if your abdominal muscle stays quite flat as you're bearing down, then the fat you feel on your abdomen is subcutaneous, or "outer" fat. If, on the other hand, your abdominal muscle sticks out (as though you're slightly pregnant), it means you have dangerous visceral fat within your abdominal cavity.

Try it! While crunches and other ab exercises may tone your belly, they won't remove the fat inside it. The good news is that getting rid of any body fat will help diminish the amount of visceral fat within your abdomen. Eating enough fruits and vegetables, fiber, whole grains and fish — all part of a Mediterranean-style anti-aging diet — as well as regular daily exercise will help you lose pounds and dangerous belly fat.


Is a Big Belly Bad for the Brain? US National Institutes on Aging Public Information Sheet. Accessed July 2, 2013.

Pamela Peeke. Fit to Live Rodale Press, New York, NY. 2007.

Vispute SS, Smith JD, LeCheminant JD, Hurley KS. "The effect of abdominal exercise on abdominal fat." J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2559-64.