If you cannot imagine a morning without a glass of orange juice or an afternoon without a soda break, we have some bad news.
Over time, drinking such sugar-sweetened beverages is likely to cause your waistline to expand, according to researchers at the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
"Our findings suggest that sugar-sweetened beverage intake is associated with an increase in visceral fat over a six-year time period," says Jiantao Ma, a postdoctoral fellow at the NHLBI and co-investigator on the study, which was published in the journal Circulation.
Many people with belly fat simply want to lose weight to improve their appearance. But they might not realize that this visible fat – known as "subcutaneous fat" – hides a deeper layer of fat known as "visceral fat."
Visceral fat wraps around internal organs such as the liver and pancreas, causing health problems, including hampering the body's ability to properly process insulin. According to the Mayo Clinic, belly fat – and the hidden visceral fat it masks – contributes to health conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Colorectal cancer
- Sleep apnea
- High blood pressure
- Premature death from any cause
More evidence of belly fat's danger
This is not the first evidence that belly fat poses health dangers. A study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that carrying too much belly fat may be more dangerous than being obese.
That study looked at 15,000 people over a 14-year time frame. It found that among study participants who were of normal weight but had big bellies:
- Normal-weight men were 50 percent more likely to die than men who were obese during the study period.
- Normal-weight women were 32 more likely to die than women who were obese during the study period.
A large waistline is also one of the key indicators of metabolic syndrome, the name of a series of risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes, or of suffering a stroke.
How to get rid of belly fat
To find out if you have too much belly fat, take a tape measure and place it around your bare belly above the hipbone. Pull it snug but not so tight that it presses into the skin. Make sure it is level, then relax and exhale.
- Men: 40 inches
- Women: 35 inches
Fortunately, you can take several steps to reduce the belly fat you already have, or lower the risk of developing belly fat in the future.
Ma says the NHLBI study did not uncover exactly how drinking sugar-sweetened beverages causes belly fat to increase. However, he notes that some scientists think excess fructose -- the major sugar component in sugar-sweetened beverages -- might lead to insulin resistance and visceral fat buildup.
"Our message to consumers is to follow the current dietary guidelines and to be mindful of how much sugar-sweetened beverages they are drinking," he says.
In addition to cutting back on such drinks, Ma emphasizes the importance of reducing overall sugar intake, while also eating more whole grains and becoming more physically active.
Specific tips for reducing belly fat include:
Eat a healthful diet. The Mayo Clinic urges you to eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains. You also need protein, but choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products.
Reduce calorie intake as you age. As the body ages, it loses muscle mass. This in turn lowers the rate at which the body burns calories.
So, a man should consume about 200 fewer calories at age 50 than he did at age 30, according to the federal government's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
A woman should drop her calorie intake by about 200 calories a day sometime in her early to mid-50s.
Drink less alcohol. Alcohol of all kinds – not just beer – contributes to abdominal belly fat, according to the Mayo Clinic. So don't kid yourself that drinking a lot of red wine is OK because it is good for the heart.
Instead, drink in moderation. That means up to two drinks per day for men, and one for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exercise regularly. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults follow one of two approaches to getting the minimum amount of exercise they need each week.
- Moderate-intensity exercise – 150 minutes of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or tennis. Boost this to 300 minutes for a bigger health impact.
- Vigorous-intensity exercise – 75 minutes of aerobic exercise such as jogging or swimming laps. Increase to 150 minutes for more significant health benefits.
Adults also should engage in muscle-strengthening exercise such as lifting weights for two or more days per week. This can help you hold on to calorie-burning muscle mass for longer as you age.