There's no gentle way to put this, so I'll just come out with the cold, hard message from the Mayo Clinic this week: Letting even a small amount of weight creep onto our abs increases the risk for coronary artery disease and cardiovascular events, and furthermore, should not be considered a normal part of aging.
The Clinic studied 43 healthy volunteers with a mean age of 29, measuring blood flow through arm arteries to test the health of the inner lining of their blood vessels.
Over an eight-week period, some volunteers were instructed to maintain their weight, and others to gain weight, at which point all were tested again. And finally, those who gained weight had to lose it and be tested again.
Among those who gained as little as 9 pounds of visceral (aka abdominal) fat, researchers found that even though blood pressure remained healthy and overall BMI was barely affected, regulation of blood flow through arm arteries was already impaired due to endothelial dysfunction.
The good news is that those volunteers who then lost the weight they gained were able to recover. Meanwhile, those whose weight did not change experienced no change in blood flow regulation, and those who gained weight evenly throughout their bodies (lucky them) were less affected.
"Physicians should know that the location of fat is important," says Virend Somers, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, who adds:
Gaining a few pounds in college, on a cruise, or over the holidays is considered harmless, but it can have cardiovascular implications, especially if the weight is gained in the abdomen....Patients should know that having a big belly may be more harmful than simply being obese. Letting weight creep on during college or as the result of aging should not be accepted as normal.
Somers also stresses that the Clinic did not study those who carried excess visceral weight for more than a few weeks, so whether weight loss in those people would normalize blood vessel function remains unknown.
Still, the results of this study suggest that even a small amount of weight gain in your belly is hard on your vascular system, so trying to lose it sounds like an intelligent quest.
How does one know how much excess abdominal fat is too much? The Mayo Clinic suggests that waist measurements are good indicators (taken without sucking in, people), and that numbers at or above 40 inches are indicative of too much belly fat for most men.
And on a personal note, I'd like to thank my mother for those pear-shape genes, because as luck would have it I can't seem to put on abdominal weight. Of course, there's always a flip side; there was that recent study indicating that weight gain in the hips can result in memory loss. If I'm remembering the study correctly, that is.