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Belly Fat can be Deadlier than Obesity, Study Finds

Update Date: Nov 11, 2015 02:12 PM EST

Although obesity in general can lead to several health conditions, such as heart disease, one particular type of obesity - central obesity - can lead to even more serious consequences according to a new study.

Central obesity occurs when a person has abnormal levels of belly fat. People who have normal body mass index (BMI), which is a measurement of obesity, can have central obesity. The World Health Organization (WHO) measures central obesity via the waist-hip ratio.

"This idea that central obesity might be related to health issues is not new. It's been proposed for a number of years," lead study author Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a cardiovascular specialist at the Mayo Clinic, told CBS News. "However, for all that time, it has been the assumption that if somebody has central obesity, the person is very likely obese. But 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."

For this study, the researchers compared the health risks in normal weight, overweight and obese adults with or without central obesity. They focused specifically on the effects of central obesity regardless of weight measured by BMI.

The team had tracked more than 15,000 adults, who were initially surveyed from 1988 to 1994, through to 2006. The adults, between the ages of 18 and 90, were a part of the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The weight breakdown was: 40 percent normal weight, 35 percent overweight and 25 percent obese.

The team found that for men, those who were of normal weight but had belly fat were two times more likely to die than men who were overweight or obese but did not have excess belly fat. For normal weight men in general, those with central obesity had a 78 percent higher risk of death from heart disease.

In women, the ones who had belly fat but were of normal weight according to their BMI were 32 percent more likely to die than obese women without high levels of belly fat. For all normal weight women, those with belly fat were two times more likely to die from heart disease.

"Waist size matters, particularly in people who are a normal weight," Dr. Lopez-Jimenez said reported by FOX News. "The lack of recognition of this leads people with abnormal distribution of fat to have a false sense of safety or reassurance that they don't need to exercise or they can eat whatever they want because they are 'skinny' when in reality, if a person has a normal BMI and an abnormal waist size the risk is worse than if they have a high BMI."

The researchers noted that some limitations to their study included their measurement method for waist size and other self-reported data, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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