Loathe Handles: Belly Fat Increases Early Death Risk

Loathe your love handles? A study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the extra belly fat isn’t just an eyesore; it can increase your risk of an early death.

While the link between extra belly padding and health problems has been long established, this new study is the first to show such a powerful link between pant size and death risk.

For the study, researchers from Imperial College London studied almost 360,000 people from nine European countries. The average age of participants at study onset was 51. Across the 10 year study period, 14,723 study participants died.

Analyzing mortality rates by waist size, the study finds that men with waists exceeding 47 inches had rates of death double that of their peers with waists under 31.5 inches. Similar statistics were observed among women with waists exceeding 39 inches when compared to those under 25.5 inches. In fact, the relationship between waist size and death risk was so strong that when comparing people with the same body mass index, the researchers determined that every additional 2 inches on the waistline increased the risk of death 17% for men and 13% for women.

Although the researchers concede that the reasons behind the link aren’t clear, a researcher from the German Institute of Human Nutrition at Potsdam-Rehbrucke suggested that abdominal fat may be unlike other forms of fat in that it is capable of releasing messenger substances that promote the development of chronic disease.

Noting that “there aren’t many simple individual characteristics that can increase a person’s risk of premature death to this extent, independently from smoking and drinking,” the researchers recommend that people be particularly mindful of excess fat accumulation around the abdominal area. The better news? The added poundage around the middle doesn’t have to be confirmed by an expensive test or some mind numbing algorithm. Rather, you can monitor your waistline by simply keeping an eye on how your clothes fit and take steps to cut back if your waistband starts feeling particularly tight.

So what can you do to prevent the waistline expansion? The key is to maintain a healthy diet and exercise program that allows you to maintain a healthy body weight. However, since we know that even people with the same BMIs can have dramatically different body shapes, it’s important to include interventions that specifically target the waistline. For example, a recent study suggests that a diet rich in protein, red meat and fiber was best at helping to reduce abdominal fat in men. Sound familiar? Now pair it with a plan that keeps you active and adding notches to your belt (for weight gain people – get your mind out of the gutter!) and the death threats associated with an extra tire around the middle shouldn’t even be an issue!

reallyboring Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Did Grok Really Eat That Much Meat?

Dear Mark: Healthy Body Weight?

How to Eat Enough Protein

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19 thoughts on “Loathe Handles: Belly Fat Increases Early Death Risk”

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  1. Son of Grok,
    Good for you, i’m happy to hear that, i love these kinds of weight loss success stories. I commend you, that’s quite an accomplishment, you reached your goal!!

    Not only is it healthier to be slim and fit. It makes you feel good about yourself when your clothes just fit right in a slender size. It does a whirlwind of good for your self esteem, too!

  2. Hey Mark,

    I took a look at this study the other day. I think that even though the link is not clear, it’s a great way to let people know that the specific problem of having a bigger waistline will lead to a specific result; a higher risk of early death. With the data laid out in simple terms, maybe more people will begin to understand why it’s important to lead a healthier lifestyle while enjoying the benefits of a better looking physique.

    Cudos SOG!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  3. Under 31.5 for men? I suppose I could fit those jeans if you took my skin off and wrapped them around my bones… I wear a 34, (and have since high school), so I think I’m doing okay.

  4. I’m with you Henry – those lower bound waist sizes are pretty small! A 25 inch waist is a women’s 0/2.

  5. Perhaps there is an evolutionary explanation to this (aside from weight related aspects). As they say, bigger primates are more apt to die earlier but are more likely to be reproduce because their size makes them more preferred among females. Men’s waistlines from 28-34, I feel, are largely predominated by genetics. Sure, a 47 inch waist suggests obesity, but to say my 32-33 inch waist will imply reduced chance of survival than my 29-31.5 inch counterparts leaves me to wonder whether part of this study is weight (read:fat) related or not. Thoughts anyone?

  6. Hey Moe,

    A big part of the Primal Blueprint is that you gain the ability to control how your genes express themselves (through nutrition, exercise and great living practices). I think that most guys just can’t picture having that 30 inch waist because they may not have ever had it. And since obesity is so prominent, it stands out as maybe looking too skinny for a guy.

    For me, I’m around the 32 range, but I know that I’ve still got a little left in the love handles and once that goes, I could be in the 31 range for sure.

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  7. I’d be interested in knowing where they came up with these boundary weights, if they are really significant as numbers or if they are merely illustrating the trend that as waist circumference drops, risk of death tends to as well.

  8. I would agree that 31.5 seems awfully thin. It has a lot to do with height though too. You would expect a taller person to have a larger waist measurement strictly on bone structure alone. Perhaps they should have gone off of a belly fat % instead of a waist measurement.

    The SoG

  9. Wow. I was sure there would be a correlation but every 2 inches increasing the risk of death by 17% in men and 13% in women? Even letting yourself go just slightly in the waistline department could be quite serious.

  10. Just 2 quick points:

    The first thing you have to consider is that article itself is not advocate a target of 31.5 inch waist for men, but only suggests that those people have half the mortality risk of those with much larger waists. It does imply that you should strive to have as small a waist as possible in order to minimize that mortality risk. For some people, having a waist less than 34 inches may not be feasible, for example.

    Also, there is no indication in the type of relationship between waist size an mortality risk. Is it linear or exponential? For example, is the difference in mortality risk between 31.5 inches and 34.5 inches the same as the difference in risk between 34.5 and 37.5?

    Both of these points are important when setting goals for waist size.

    What we do know is that given the same BMI, the one with a larger waist (and presumably a higher percentage of body fat) has a higher mortality risk.

    All in all, the smaller the waist the better, just do not worry if it is not possible (or realistic) for you get your waist to the sizes indicated in study.

  11. The fact that abdominal fat may be more dangerous, ie toxic, makes me desperate to get that toxic fat book. Its on its way from america I cant wait.

  12. It’s imporant to remember that this is an epidemiological (i.e. association) study. It does not PROVE that abdominal obesity causes early death only that it is associated with it. It doesn’t address, for example, whether decreasing waist size reduces risk. It is useful from a scientific point of view as a hypothesis generating tool. Belly fat is thought to be pro inflammatory. Are there particular chemicals that are disease causing? Can they be reduced by weight loss, diet or drugs, etc. Of course, from a personal point of view it does seem to show that a ‘pot belly’ is a health risk, but there are plenty of other studies that show that.

    I just wouldn’t get too caught up in 31.5 inches if you’re a man or 25.5 if a woman. These are somewhat arbitrary numbers subject to measurement errors, statistical manipulation, etc.

  13. IMO, if your Body Mass Index is in the middle of its ideal range, then your wast line should be perfect.

    BMI Calculator here:

    Normal BMI = 18.5 to 24.9
    Overweight = 25 to 29.9
    Obese 1 = 30 to 34.9
    Obese 2 = 35 to 39.9
    Obese 3 = 40 +
    Obese 4 = Death by Ugga Bugga

    The formula is
    BMI = weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared – where
    Weight in KG = weight in lbs divided by 2.2
    Height in meters = Height in inches times 0.0254

  14. Thanks for pointing out the statistics here as I didn’t know that every 2 inches increased the risk of death by 17% in men and 13% in women. But I’m sure everybody agrees that having excess belly fat is NOT healthy and we all are constantly trying to cut it down. I would say around 32-34 is a good measurement for men.

  15. I’m a tall female, so if I’m looking for a 6’3″ + tall male, his waistline damn sure be higher than 31.5 !!!

    Can someone say Auschwitz?

    Btw, back in the 80’s I remember it was said that a few extra pounds increases life expectancy…not the other way around.
    Being too skinny, running on too low of a body fat % for a long time will cut your life short. Not to mention nobody will mate with you.
    Who likes a pile of bones in the bedroom…

  16. So…. Let’s say that you were ill for a bit and had to be on antibiotics. What’s the best way to normalize your gut flora again?

    I’ve noted after having antibiotics that it takes me between a week and a month and a half to get back to the point where hot curry doesn’t tear up my stomach. I presumed this was due to bacterial death in my gut. However, since it does eventually seem to recover, is it possible that our regular gut flora can do so as well (or can be coerced into doing so)?

    1. Just realized I posted this in haste on the wrong thread. My apologies.

  17. I am one that you speak up in this forum, going from a 34″ waist to a 40″ with stomach circumference of 47″. Yes I know more than anyone that is really bad, and just started the HCG diet to help shred away a few quick pounds to get me started on a new life venture with myself. All this in 6 years, wow amazing how fast you can ruin yourself.