Ask any guy at the gym why he’s plodding away on the treadmill, and chances are he’ll point to his gut. “I’m trying to get rid of this beer belly,” he’ll say, between desperate gasps of air. It’s no surprise: Aside from man-boobs or chicken-legs, the one body part that less-than-fit guys focus on is their belly, which typically accumulates fat fast and holds onto it the longest.
Now, there’s solid scientific proof why they should be worrying: Having a high amount of belly fat is even deadlier than being generally overweight or obese as defined by body mass index (BMI), according to a study published Wednesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study authors analyzed data from 15,000 U.S. adults, ranging in age between 18 and 90. They focused on the subjects’ BMI and what they called “central obesity,” defined as a person’s waist size compared to hip size.
Their findings: “A man with a normal BMI and central obesity”—so, a guy who’s not too heavy but has a lot of belly fat—”had greater total mortality risk than one with similar BMI but no central obesity,” the study authors wrote. Worse yet, Mr. Belly Fat has “twice the mortality risk of participants who were overweight or obese according to BMI only,” concluded the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and several European health organizations.
In other words: Guys with big, fat bellies are more likely to die young than are generally heavy people who don’t have belly fat. It’s possible that guys with big guts have a higher proportion of visceral fat, which builds up beneath a person’s musculature and surrounds internal organs like the liver and pancreas. It can also make the body effectively numb to the “hunger hormone” leptin, meaning the body never feels the need to suppress appetite and burn more calories.
“In this study, we actually proved that a person can be centrally obese and have normal BMI and that person is at a greater risk for serious health problems,” lead study author Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiovascular specialist at the Mayo Clinic, told CBS News.
Of course, there are some inherent flaws in conflating body fat percentage with BMI. Because BMI strictly compares mass to height, the index doesn’t register a difference between ripped guys who are packed with dense muscle versus guys who are built more like the Michelin Man. San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore, for example, is a muscle-bound beast at 5′ 9″ and 216 lbs—but he’s obese, according to the BMI. That said, BMI is still a decent measure of overall size, especially when overlayed with waist size.
So: How can you banish all remnants of your belly fat? Here comes the bad news: Unfortunately, you can’t spot-reduce fat. No matter what crash diets or “rapid weight-loss solution” books say, there’s no way to magically zap your gut first—and for most men, fat around your midsection is the most stubborn fat there is. That’s why winning the battle of the bulge requires a concentrated attack on two fronts: exercise and your diet.