Ask the Dietitian: The Truth About Belly Fat and Inflammation

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: The Truth About Belly Fat and Inflammation

We cover a lot of ground when it comes to nutrition at MyFitnessPal. Some of the topics can be tricky and deserve further explanation from our experts. Now is your chance to ask for clarity! Every few weeks I’ll pick a few of your questions to answer in detail.

“I’m hearing a lot about belly fat and inflammation. How are the two connected and how can I reduce them both?”

Belly fat. Not exactly the most flattering term in the health industry, but a very real, very powerful indicator of one’s health status. More scientifically known as visceral fat, belly fat is the kind of fat that surrounds your organs, causing your belly to bulge when you start accumulating too much of it. It can be quite dangerous for your health, too; a leading predictor of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and even cancer.

So what does belly fat have to do with inflammation? A lot, actually. Inflammation is our body’s natural defense system. There are two types: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the one you can physically see in action – like redness and swelling when you cut your finger. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a bit more undetectable to the naked eye. It’s sneaky.  

THE DANGERS OF CHRONIC INFLAMMATION

Chronic inflammation occurs when our body responds to unwanted substances in the body, like excess fat cells that accumulate in the belly area. Like the name suggests, chronic inflammation doesn’t turn “on” and “off” like acute inflammation. The body turns “on” and stays activated for long periods of time making us sick. As fat cells continue to accumulate in the belly area, your body responds by continuously producing insulin — a hormone that “unlocks” your body’s muscle, liver and fat cell doors to allow glucose inside to be stored. Over time, these muscle, fat and liver cells stop responding as efficiently to the insulin. The keys stop working, glucose builds up in the blood, and our body shifts into overdrive to pump out more insulin. But no matter how much insulin our body produces, not enough cells “unlock” to absorb the glucose. Simply put, we become one giant hormonal imbalance, which leads to a whole slew of other problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and even cardiovascular disease. But it doesn’t stop there. This imbalance, or stress, causes our bodies natural defense system — inflammation — to kick in and release even more chemicals to try and fight it. In small doses, inflammation is a good thing. But over time, you end up with too much of it. Our bodies aren’t designed to be on high alert all the time.


READ MORE > THE SECRET BEHIND THE WEIGHT GAIN-INFLAMMATION CONNECTION


WAYS TO COMBAT INFLAMMATION

So what can you do about it?

Losing weight — and belly fat — can drastically help reduce inflammation. “Many experimental studies have shown that components of food or beverages may have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

 

 

It all starts with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Add more foods that fight inflammation into your diet, cut out those that fuel the imbalance, and you’ll start to look better, feel better and possibly even help your body prevent certain diseases and illnesses.


READ MORE ASK THE DIETITIAN

> IS SUGAR REALLY ADDICTIVE?
> 5 NUTRITION TRICKS FOR PICKY EATERS
> THE CASE AGAINST DIET SODA


About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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23 responses to “Ask the Dietitian: The Truth About Belly Fat and Inflammation”

  1. Avatar Lesley says:

    The foods that fight inflammation list seems to be the basis for eating a paleo styled diet. Just saying…..

  2. Avatar Fogwoman Gray says:

    Hello, nurse here. Could you please offer some citations? Chronic inflammation as a causative element in lots of disease processes is well established, but “Belly fat” causing chronic inflammation is not a commonly accepted theory and I would really like to see some studies to read. If no studies exist, please note that the information provided has not been scientifically established. Thanks!

    • Avatar CONCERNED says:

      It doesnt necessarily need scientific data to back it up. If you eat better and then feel better with less pain, thats all you need. No “scientific data” applies to every person, every situation. Do whats best for you, using common sense. They said my psoriatic arthritis doesnt go into remission. It did for 4 years so….

      • Avatar RealWorldProgressive says:

        “No “scientific data” applies to every person, every situation. Do whats best for you, using common sense.”

        The problem with this approach is that you could use it to promote Snake Oil, healing crystals or any placebo or ineffective treatment.

        If this hypothesis is correct, then what’s the harm of testing it and getting empirical data to back it up? If it’s not correct, wouldn’t you want to know that it’s not correct and those foods aren’t necessarily bad? You could still eat whatever foods you want, but you’d have more information and knowledge.

        • Avatar webbywizard2 says:

          thank you. It is a very,very dangerous think to state “It doesn’t necessarily need scientific data to back it up”. Without scientific data it’s NOT backed up, it’s simply anectodal. Which is fine, but people are dying every day because they chose anectodal cancer cures

      • Avatar nbgiant25 says:

        “No “scientific data” applies to every person, every situation.”

        Gravity seems to work pretty well across the board…

      • Avatar bitcoin says:

        Where’s the scientific evidence for washing your hands after going to the toilet? Have there been any randomised controlled trials?

    • Avatar sam todo says:

      My sed rate and HS-CRP are always high. I’m morbidly obese and apple-shaped, my fat congregates in my trunk, with high blood pressure. When I had my blood tested further to rule out lupus and other typical causes for inflammation they were normal. So just generalized inflammation, wonder why?

  3. Avatar Mai Rose says:

    Papaya did magic for my chronic inflammation problem 🙂 Thank you for the post its very imformative

  4. Avatar Maria Vano says:

    Hello Ms. Fry — you made an excellent point with “This imbalance, or stress, causes our bodies natural defense system — inflammation — to kick in and release even more chemicals to try and fight it. In small doses, inflammation is a good thing. But over time, you end up with too much of it. Our bodies aren’t designed to be on high alert all the time.” However, as a Cushing’s Syndrome survivor (and working hard to get rid of that resulting inflammation/belly fat), I would suggest that a natural, perhaps parenthetical or asterisked, addition to the sentence would be: “This high alert can result in a rare, although no longer as rare as once though, condition of constant cortisol production known as Cushing’s Syndrome and Cushing’s Disease, which no amount of ‘dieting’ or healthy eating and exercise will take off the weight–usually diagnosed by a trained endocrinologist who does blood or saliva tests to measure cortisol production.” Thanks!

    • Avatar Krystina says:

      Wow. I have horses with Cushing’s. It is caused by a tumor in the pituitary which affects the ability of the body to stop cortisol production. It is also called “metabolic syndrome” in horses. And this causes them to stop being able to effectively process sugars, which makes them appear diabetic. This is very interesting. I am going to follow up on researching the parallels between equine Cushing’s (which isn’t that rare in ponies) and human Cushing’s…. Thanks.

  5. Avatar Kevin Friery says:

    Visceral fat is NOT synonymous with belly fat – they are often two different things. As soon as I read an article that confuses the two in the first sentence I know I can’t trust the rest of the article. Intra-abdominal (visceral) fat is indeed the dangerous, life shortening sort of fat but belly fat may also be subcutaneous fat and is not nearly as dangerous. Articles like this should come with properly annotated scientific citations otherwise we can’t tell the evidence from the mere speculation.

    • Avatar Sharon says:

      Ok how does one know the difference?

    • Avatar Chris Martin says:

      You’re nit picking on language. Since visceral fat is one of two types of belly fat it is no great foul to use the terms synonymously, though her article would certainly be more clear if she also mentioned subcutaneous fat. The key point is that a growing belly is a bad sign. Interestingly, an article on WebMD that you can find fairly easily by searching “belly fat” says that both types of belly fat might be bad for you (subcutaneous fat in the belly worse than elsewhere) and, without a CT scan it’s hard to tell which you have… Here’s a quote: “But subcutaneous fat cells on the belly may be another story, says Fried. There’s emerging evidence that the danger of big bellies lies not only in the deep visceral fat but also the subcutaneous fat.”

      • Avatar Anthony says:

        You do get the irony here right? As you criticize the author fir stating a fact without a “scientific citation” and present a conflicting opinion without any citation. Pot. Kettle. Ring a bell?

  6. Avatar Ana Gutierrez says:

    por favor en español como podría ?

  7. Avatar I cannot get to see any of my says:

    Yes Ms Fry……….definitely shoving paleo down people’s throats. It does not agree with everyone. There is no one size fits all.
    ‘Sidney is a James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition consultant, writer and editor based out of Birmingham, Alabama. She’s a registered dietitian with an extensive understanding of how to make healthy food both attractive and delicious. Sidney is the former nutrition editor at Cooking Light magazine, where she developed a slew of recipes, health-related content and crafted the nutrition-themed packages for the magazine’s various print and digital platforms. She loves to eat, write, run and create beautiful food by utilizing a more plant-based approach in the everyday kitchen’ taken off her profile

  8. Avatar Peter says:

    On a ketogenic diet which uses animal products, all 7 indicators of inflammation have scientifically shown to be reduced, as well as less cancer and seizures.

  9. Avatar Chris Martin says:

    You need to understand your media. This is popular writing, not scientific or academic. The author is not writing to engage in an argument and thus has no burden to “prove” anything. The norm for this type of writing (I would say publication if it were a physical magazine) is to NOT include citations, though of course an article might reference specific studies in the text–just not include end notes or citations. It’s simply not the standard for this blog. As a popular (as in not academic) column, the writer has no burden, or even responsibility to cite sources. It’s that simple. If you, the reader, find something provocative, do some research on your own. Note that my post was in response to Fogwoman’s criticism which was a bit pointed and in which she stated, “If no studies exist, please note that the information provided has not been scientifically established.” Well, the absence of citations does not mean “no studies exist.” It’s fine to ask for additional references and studies if you’re sincerely searching for information, but the tone and approach of her comment is unwarranted. Note: my original post included a link to a scientific magazine that does have citations but for some reason the comment police deleted that. I found that on my phone in about ten seconds with a simple internet search. Just type: “belly fat inflammation.”

    • Avatar Gadgets says:

      Being the internet, the “norm” for this type of writing is to make it as hyped-up as possible to get clicks in order to sell *something*.

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