Surprise: Everyone has some belly fat, even people who have flat abs. That’s normal. But too much belly fat can affect your health in a way that other fat doesn’t. Some of your fat is right under your skin. Other fat is deeper inside, around your heart, lungs, liver, and other organs. It’s that deeper fat, called visceral fat, that may be the bigger problem, even for thin people.

DEEP BELLY FAT – You need some visceral fat as it provides cushioning around your organs. But if you have too much of it, you may be more likely to get high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. The fat doesn’t just sit there. It is an active part of your body, making lots of nasty substances. If you gain too much weight, your body starts to store fat in unusual places. With increasing obesity, you have people whose regular areas to store fat are so full that the fat is deposited into the organs and around the heart.

HOW MUCH BELLY FAT DO YOU HAVE? – The most precise way to determine how much visceral fat you have is to get a CT scan or MRI. But here is a much simpler and low-cost way to check. Get a measuring tape, wrap it around your waist at your belly button, and check your girth. Do this while you are standing up and be sure that the tape measure is level. For your health’s sake, you want your waist size to be less than 35 inches for women and less than 40 inches for men. Having a “pear shape” – bigger hips and thighs – is considered safer than an “apple shape” which represents a wider waistline. In general, if you have more abdominal fat, it is probably an indication that you have more visceral fat.

THIN PEOPLE HAVE IT TOO – Even if you’re thin, you can still have too much visceral fat. How much you have is partly about your genes and partly about your lifestyle, especially when it comes to how active you are. Visceral fat likes inactivity. In one study, thin people who watched their diets but who did not exercise were more likely to have too much visceral fat. The key is to be active, no matter what size you are.

STEPS FOR BEATING BELLY FAT – There are four keys to controlling belly fat: exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management.

  1. Exercise: Vigorous exercise trims all of your fat, including visceral fat. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days a week. Walking counts, as long as it is brisk enough that you work up a sweat and breathe harder, with your heart rate faster than usual. Run, if you are already fit, or walk briskly at an incline on a treadmill if you are not ready for jogging. Vigorous workouts on stationary bikes and elliptical machines are also effective.
  2. Diet: There is no magic diet for belly fat. But when you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually goes first. Getting enough fiber can help; research shows that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day, without any other diet changes, build up less visceral fat over time than others. That is as simple as eating two small apples, a cup of green peas, or a half-cup of pinto beans.
  3. Sleep: Getting the right amount of shut-eye helps. In one study, people who got 6 to 7 hours of sleep per night gained less visceral fat over 5 years compared to those who slept 5 or fewer hours per night. Sleep may not have been the only thing that mattered, but it is shown to be part of the picture.
  4. Stress: Everyone has stress. How you handle it matters. The best things you can do include relaxing with friends and family, meditating, exercising to blow off steam, and getting counseling if necessary. That leaves you healthier and better prepared to make good choices for yourself.