Why your middle-age spread could be killing you

There was a time when we could laugh off the inevitability of developing a middle-aged spread as we got older as one of life’s cruel little jokes. However, a lot is known medically these days about your “spare tyre” or “muffin top” and the news is not good. Experts say being even a few kilos overweight can be fatal to your health.

That’s because we now know a lot more about two different types of belly fat. One is subcutaneous fat, which is just under our skin and the other is visceral fat, which develops in our abdominal cavity and wraps itself around our vital organs such as the liver, pancreas and kidneys.

It’s the second fat that’s dangerous. The fact that your organs are enveloped means that over time they don’t function properly and this can lead to serious disease. Having lots of visceral fat means you become more susceptible to diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, some cancers, and so on.

As most of us know only too well, fighting the battle of the bulge becomes much harder as we get older. On average, we put on between 0.5 to 1kg a year from the time we turn 40, and much of this is often around the belly.

Dr Nick Fuller, from the Boden Institute at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, says visceral fat is largely a lifestyle-related issue: our grandparents’ generation wouldn’t have had this problem to the extent we do today. Since the 1980s, when we started to become far more reliant on processed foods, working in offices and exercising less, “pot bellies” have become a part of the physical landscape in Australia. In fact, obesity levels have doubled since then.

“Two in three people in Australia today are overweight or obese, which means they’re more likely to have visceral fat,” says Dr Fuller. “And one in six Australians are at risk of being pre-diabetic [at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and may not even know it]. Type 2 diabetes is a very serious disease which is hard to reverse.”

Dr Fuller says he continues to discover new – and troubling – information about visceral fat. “A study released last year showed that even those at the lower end of the obesity spectrum [who are only a few kilos overweight] have a 35 per cent increased risk of heart failure,” he says.

He believes the general public doesn’t really understand what visceral fat is and why it’s a serious health concern. One of the stumbling blocks is that it’s invisible: you won’t know if you’ve got high levels unless you see your GP and have a blood test.

You might think that being overweight is a sure sign you have visceral fat, though that is not correct. You can be within a healthy weight range for your height and age, but still have high levels.

So what are the main visceral fat culprits? Dr Fuller says many of us eat a diet that is too energy-dense – meaning we rely too much on takeaway meals, processed foods and junk foods – and don’t exercise nearly enough.

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Swapping takeaway food for a healthy home-cooked meal can reduce visceral fat

He says there is a lot you can do to reduce your visceral fat. “See your GP, have a blood test to find out what your health indicators such as blood sugar levels are and get someone to measure your waist circumference from around the belly button area. Men ought to have a measurement of 94cm and women 80cm,” he says.

“Eat out or get takeaway once or twice a week and make it a treat meal, rather than the norm.”

“As for diet and exercise, a good thing to do is to look at the Australian guide to healthy eating which is a guideline to how much food from each of the five food groups you should be eating over the course of a week,” he says.

“The other thing is you need to do at least 30 minutes [60 minutes if you want to lose weight] of moderate intensity exercise, such as a brisk walk, six days a week.”

Dr Fuller says those who would like more information can sign up to a program to help people reverse their chances of getting lifestyle related diseases, especially diabetes. It’s free, comprehensive medical care currently available at the University of Sydney. To find out more, go to www.metabolictrial.com

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