"The measuring tape is the new stethoscope as the bulge on your tummy could be a sign of deeper problems," warn the experts.
"Waist circumference is an 'absolute vital sign' in determining your health. And it is time everyone stopped measuring just the weight and measured the waist as well," advises Dr Nalin Nag, Consultant, Internal Medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. "For women, a waist size of more than 35 inches signals potential trouble; in men, it is 40 inches," he warns.
We all know that the excess pounds increase the risk of certain diseases; but what we don't realize is that where we carry the weight counts too. Hefty hips and thighs (a pear-shaped body) may not look appealing in the mirror, but research now says that abdominal fat (an apple-shaped body) is more hazardous to health.
Explains Dr Nag, "People with wide girths have larger amounts of deep-hidden belly fat around their organs. This is a dangerous kind of fat, which often winds up gathering around vital organs and increases a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. Also, belly fat doesn't just lay idle at your belt-line; it as an active 'organ' in your body - one that churns out hormones and inflammatory substances."
So, what are the pot belly problems? A direct correlation has been found between bigger waists in women and heart disease, diabetes, varicose veins, and breast and colon cancer risks.
While obesity has always been known as a risk factor for breast cancer, researchers have found waist size as an independent risk factor. They warn that extra fat adds most risk after menopause, when women are already at a higher risk of developing breast cancer because of their increasing age.
A correlation has also been found with colon cancer. "Belly fat could possibly increase colon cancer risk by raising levels of certain hormones that affect cell growth, including the growth of cancer cells," writes Dr Tobias Pischon, lead author of a recent study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, USA. The study - published in July last year - reports that when it comes to colon cancer, women have the highest risk. It found that the study's female participants with the most abdominal fat had a 48 per cent greater chance of developing colon cancer than men, who stand a slightly lower chance of 39 per cent.
And that's not all. The apple-shaped woman is not wrong in envying the pear-shaped figure of her friend. According to a Danish study, a woman is nearly five times more likely to die of heart disease if she has both a big waist and a high level of fats in her blood. Dr L'zl' B. Tank' and colleagues at the Centre for Clinical and Basic Research in Ballerup, Denmark, reported their findings in the April 2005 issue of the journal, 'Circulation'. In fact, Dr Tank' writes, "lower-body fat may actually be protective. The reason being that below-the-waist fat cells produce a hormone that fights some of the heart-damaging effects of upper-body fat."
Women who put on a lot of weight around their waist are at nearly twice the risk of developing gallstones big enough to require surgical removal, another study reports. Published in the journal 'Gut' (February 2006), the study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky Medical Centre found that compared to women with waistlines at or under 26 inches, women with waistlines of 36 inches or more faced double the risk of developing gallstones requiring surgical removal.
Back pain and fatigue are two other common side effects. "Fat in the belly pulls the lower spine forward, arching the lower back and causing pain. A taut belly can better support the spine, thus improving your posture and reducing back pain," explains Dr Raju Vaish, Senior Consultant Orthopedic Surgeon, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.
While the easiest thing to do would be to blame an overweight ancestor and those genes, it would only be fair to figure out how much exercise and just how much food the body has been treated to. For those endowed with a larger-than-required midriff, here are some simple measures to beat the belly bulge.
Make waist measurement part of your weekly weigh-in. Lose weight with a focus on your waist. Get rid of the extra inches there, ASAP.
"People who eat polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats have less abdominal fat," shares Dr Shikha Sharma, nutrition specialist, New Delhi. Polyunsaturated fats are healthier fats and can be substituted for saturated as well as trans fats that increase risks of high blood cholesterol. They are found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils such as soyabean, corn, sunflower and safflower. Avoid meats such as beef, lamb and pork; dairy products like butter, cream, milk, cheese and coconut oil, as they are the primary sources of saturated fats. In June 2006, at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in Washington, it was reported that trans fats - found in ready-to-eat baked goods (such as cookies and crackers), snack foods and fried foods - increase the amount of fat around the belly.
If you have to do just one thing to cut the belly fat - exercise! Do cardio and aerobic workouts. Or lift weights. By just lifting weights twice a week for an hour, women can battle the build-up of tummy fat that often happens with ageing. But do not attempt these exercises without the seeking the help of a professional. "The weight of the dumbbell would depend upon the person's age, height, weight, muscle strength and present level of medical fitness. So, it is best to seek guidance from an expert," advises Nisha Verma, aerobics instructor at Asian Roots Spa, New Delhi.
Joining hands with burgers and French fries in their rather expansive plans is stress. Late nights at work, the stress of a big project, deadly deadlines too add up to the midsection. "Stress causes a hormone called cortisol to be released which, in turn, leads to the accumulation of unwanted belly fat," explains Dr Avdesh Sharma, consultant psychiatrist, Parivartan Centre for Mental Health, New Delhi. "Extra cortisol in our system also leads to an increased appetite for carbohydrates and fats, the end result of which, over time, is a spare tyre around the mid-section," adds Dr Sharma. His advice: "Learn to say no. Take stock of your life and work consciously at busting stress."