Do you have too much belly fat? Use our tool to find out

Belly fat
Just a few extra inches can put you at increased health risks

It’s not news that being too fat is bad for our health. But having a protruding belly, regardless of weight, brings its own risks.

Just a few extra inches on your waist can leave you more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes, heart problems and an early grave. Men draw the short straw on this front, as they tend to store more fat around their middles, while it is more evenly spread between the bum, hips and thighs in women.

To find out whether your apple body shape is risking your health, input your waist and hip measurements into the calculator below.

What is belly fat?

If you consume more calories than you burn off, your body will store them as fat. Where that fat is stored depends on your genes.

“Certain individuals will have a genetic composition that means they more readily store fat in central areas like the belly,” says Dr James King, a reader in clinical exercise science at Loughborough University.

The body first stores excess calories as subcutaneous fat – the type that sits just under the skin and you can grab with your hands. This is considered to be “safe” body fat storage, as it is a source of energy when we need it, explains Dr King.

“But there’s a limit to how much fat you can store in those areas,” he says. “If we continually eat more than we consume, we start to store fat in areas where we’re not designed to.”

This spillover of fat develops deep in the belly or abdominal region and can be in the form of visceral fat (around the internal organs) or intra-organ fat (inside organs such as the liver, pancreas and kidneys), says Dr Scott Willis, a research associate in exercise, diet and obesity-related chronic disease at Loughborough University.

What are the risks?

Storing excess fat around your middle can also raise the risk of obesity-related liver disease. “It’s like foie gras – the liver of force-fed geese and ducks,” says Dr King. “That’s essentially what happens with central fat deposition. A lot of fat can get stored within the liver.”

“That causes all sorts of metabolic problems. Type 2 diabetes is the obvious one, then there’s fatty liver disease, and then in turn those are linked to cardiovascular disease, which leads to a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes.”

Large amounts of tummy fat, especially visceral fat deposits around organs, can increase inflammation in the body, according to scientists at Washington University, who believe this raises the risk of atherosclerosis (thickening or hardening of the arteries) and cancer.

Storing too much fat around your tummy could also be fatal. A study published in the BMJ found that every 10cm increase in waist circumference was linked to an 11 per cent higher risk of dying early. The researchers suggested this was down to unhealthy blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels among those with bigger middles.

Do I have too much?

“The waist to hip ratio metric is a marker of what’s actually present within your tummy cavity – the fat stored within and around your key organs,” says Dr King.

To find out your waist to hip ratio, simply input your sex and measurements for your waist (just above your hips) and hips (the widest point of your buttocks) into the calculator above.

The result is your waist to hip ratio.

  • A healthy score is 0.8 or lower for women, or 0.95 or lower for men.

  • A moderate score is 0.81 to 0.85 for women, or 0.96 to 1 for men

  • A high score is 0.86 or higher for women, or 1 or higher for men

“If you’re in the high risk category, you want to get out of it,” says Dr King. “If you’re in the middle risk category, you don’t want to transition to being in the high risk. In both of those scenarios, it’s about getting out of the riskier category and down to the healthier category.”

“People who have a healthy waist to hip ratio should maintain their current lifestyle habits provided they meet the World Health Organisation guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behaviour and healthy eating,” says Dr Willis.

This involves at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week; strengthening workouts at least twice a week; reducing time spent sitting; and a healthy diet packed with wholegrains, vegetables, fruits and nuts, he adds.

How do I lose belly fat?

Spot reduction – the idea that certain diets or exercises can target fat in certain areas of the body, such as the belly – is commonly touted online as a quick fix.

“But the evidence is quite clear – you can’t do anything to deliberately target belly fat,” says Dr King. “A general weight loss effort is needed to reduce it.” This means that people need to enter a negative calorie balance, either by eating less or exercising more, he says.

For most people, how much they’re eating is the main thing to focus on. “It’s very difficult to run off a bad diet,” Dr King says. “It might only take 30 seconds to eat a muffin that’s got 500 calories in it but around an hour and a half to burn off.”

“The right [dieting] approach is the one that works for you,” he says. This could mean cutting calories by time-restricted eating, such as only eating between 10am and 4pm. “That seems to help people as it means they don’t snack in the evenings,” he says. Others prefer to try intermittent fasting, which involves eating around 500 calories one or two days per week.

“Ultimately, the best approach is one you can stick to, so you can eventually create an energy deficit that can be sustained and lose that body fat,” Dr King adds.

The good news is that when the body sheds fat, it does tend to come from the belly first (both subcutaneous and visceral fat), he notes.

When it comes to exercise, aerobic workouts (those that increase your heart and breathing rate) are most effective for fat loss, Dr King says. Brisk walking, running, cycling and swimming, or any other activities that raise heart and breathing rate, are all examples.

“Focus on finding the enjoyment factor and how you can build exercise into daily life sustainably, otherwise you’ll stop,” he adds.