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People Of Normal Weight May Be At Risk For Obesity-Related Health Issues


People who are a normal, healthy weight but have excess fat around the middle - those folks may be at risk for obesity-related health problems. That is the finding of a new study published in the journal JAMA Network Open. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Researchers from the University of Iowa were interested in whether excess belly fat among individuals with a healthy weight was dangerous. They analyzed health records of more than 156,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79 who took part in the Women's Health Initiative. They looked at body weight and central obesity - that extra bulge of fat around the middle - and then who died from cancer or heart disease. Epidemiologist Wei Bao headed the study.

WEI BAO: Women with some normal weight but have excess fat around the belly have higher risk of mortality.

NEIGHMOND: A 31% higher risk of death over a 20-year period than women of normal weight who didn't have access belly fat. This higher risk puts them on par with obese individuals with excessive abdominal fat who are more likely to suffer heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. So if you're healthy and normal weight, Bao says don't assume you're at low risk for disease.

BAO: Even among people with normal weight, our body shape matters.

NEIGHMOND: Why? Because abdominal fat is stored more deeply inside the body than other fat. Cardiologist Nieca Goldberg with the American Heart Association.

NIECA GOLDBERG: It's not about the weight in your arms or your butt. It's about weight that's around the middle. We know that it is a marker for there to be more deep - what they call visceral fat - fat around our organs.

NEIGHMOND: Which can result in problematic fat deposits around the organs. Visceral fat also increases insulin resistance, inflammation and fatty buildup in artery walls. And for women in particular, fighting belly fat can be challenging after menopause when estrogen levels drop.

GOLDBERG: The changes in hormones actually change the sensitivity your body has to taking up blood sugar. So it's really important as you approach menopause and beyond that you cut back on the simple carbohydrates and starches.

NEIGHMOND: And exercise on a regular basis. Now, this study only looked at postmenopausal women. Researcher Bao says it's not clear whether men of normal weight develop dangerous belly fat as they age. But for both men and women, the message for health is the same - if your doctor doesn't measure your waist during routine appointments, ask them to.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.