Get rid of your belly.
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Get rid of your belly.

So you've developed a bit of a gut in recent years. So what? Even though your stomach is softer and saggier than it once was and your pants fit tighter at the waist than they used to, if you're still relatively thin and relatively active, then you're relatively healthy, right? Not so fast. New research shows that normal-weight adults who sport a big belly are more likely to die from a host of medical issues than overweight or obese people. And since guys tend to carry extra pounds in their midsection, whereas women show weight gain in their hips, butt, and chest, the new research suggests you might be at even greater risk.

To conclude that potbellies can kill, researchers at the Mayo Clinic crunched survey data from 12,785 men and women over a 14-year period. They divided them into three categories of body mass index – normal, overweight, and obese – and then into two classifications of waist-to-hip ratio – normal and high (high meaning they had a too-big gut for their body size). Over the course of the study, there were 2,562 deaths – 1,138 of them cardiovascular related – and, shockingly, most came from the normal-BMI, fat-midsection group. These people were a whopping three times more likely to die than those with healthy weights and waist sizes, and their mortality rate was significantly higher than that of the overweight and obese subjects who didn't have disproportionately large stomachs.

Clearly, the beast is in the belly. But why? Mayo researcher Dr. Karine Sahakyan has three theories. First, she says fat that accumulates in the midsection, known as visceral fat, is inherently different than chub located elsewhere on the body, and it's more closely linked to negative metabolic factors. For instance, she says visceral fat cells release hormones that trigger insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes. Second, Sahakyan says fat on the lower body may be less damaging than visceral fat and possibly even biologically protective, which could explain why the overweight and obese subjects whose weight was evenly distributed fared better, health-wise, than the normal-weight, fat-middled folks. She says recent, surprising studies have shown that people with chubby legs are healthier, and so now researchers are clamoring to figure out why. The final hypothesis is that big-stomached people tend to have less muscle mass, meaning more of what they eat piles onto their bodies rather than being used by the muscles for energy.

Sounds like it's time to quit camouflaging that belly with baggy clothes and start swapping apples for Oreos and hitting the gym.