Love handles. A slang term for the mostly cuddly fat surrounding the waist area is actually just a generous amount of subcutaneous fat (SF) that resides under the top layer of skin. The other types of abdominal fat are visceral fat (VF), found deeper within the body surrounding vital organs in the peritoneal cavity and intra muscular fat (IF) found within skeletal muscle in the upper torso.
Over the years studies have shown that fat (adipose tissue) doesn’t just passively accumulate but much like endocrine glands release hormones and other substances. This is particularly true for fat stored in the belly area and these hormones could be contributing factors to a myriad of metabolic and other types of diseases, such as type II diabetes.
So the bad news is that whilst the jelly belly may not always be so lovable, subcutaneous fat, the kind that constitutes love handles isn’t linked that strongly to adverse effects as visceral fat. Therefore, depending on some variables, an expanding waist line might not always spell trouble.
In black women aged between 20-29 the tendency to start piling on the pounds around the waist and belly is more pronounced than in Hispanic or White women of the same age group and their elders. Typically amongst women, the mid section only starts to thicken as a side effect of aging, or more specifically menopause, when fat storage starts to favour the upper body, particularly the stomach area over the hips and thighs. This is likely caused by depletion in the amount of oestrogen produced during menopause which leads to disproportionately higher levels of androgen (male hormones) and the production of stress hormones (cortisol) which causes the accumulation of abdominal fat. Cortisol is also the hormone that causes Cushing’s disease, one of the symptoms is central obesity (weight gain in the middle of the body i.e. abdomen, chest and face only), and can be triggered by stress.
So there are three factors thus far that predisposes the accumulation of fat around the mid section, age, race and lifestyle. The fourth, as with most health issues is genetics, namely the ones that you inherit from your parents. Depending on your particular body shape, the natural distribution of fat varies. A quick recap of the six main female body shapes:
Pear ( triangle)- This type tends to hold weight in the hips, abdomen and thighs with a small bust and narrow shoulders
Apple (inverted triangle)-This type holds weight centrally in the abdomen and has broad shoulders and narrow hips
Rectangle -This type has minimal differentiation in the bust, waist and hips and distributes fat equally in these areas
Hourglass – This type has a small waist and relatively larger hips and bust. Weight is held mainly in the hips and bust.
Diamond and Rounded shape: These types generally have fat distributed in the midsection especially the waist, abdomen and back.
From these descriptions it’s easy to see that the body shapes most likely to hold weight in the stomach area is the apple and to a lesser extent, pear shaped types, although as advanced age approaches, all types of shapes are equally dealt with the “middle age spread”.
All this means that as a black woman, you are more likely to begin gaining weight in your mid section from age 20, and your particular body type, especially if you’re apple shaped, as well as lifestyle choices which are stressful, may lead you to accumulate dangerous amounts of visceral fat.
Why is visceral fat so bad for my health and what is the worst that can happen? When there is a large amount of VF in the abdomen, certain hormones like cytokines, tumour necrosis factor (TNF), interleukin 6 are released. The proximity of VF to the portal vein allows for other harmful fatty acids to be released into the bloodstream and carried from the intestine to the liver leading to high levels of bad cholesterol. All these combined constitute metabolic syndrome which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, aside from the aforementioned type II diabetes.
So you might be predisposed to gaining unwanted visceral fat in the stomach area, the next thing to determine is how do I know if my love handles should be a source of concern and how do I rectify the situation?
There may be cause for concern if more than 1of the following is true:
Is your BMI (Body Mass Index) higher than 25?
(BMI = weight (kg)/ (height in metres) 2). This is the least accurate indicator for abdominal fat measurement.
Measure your hips and waist, and divide the former into the latter, is the ratio higher than 0.8?
(Studies show that a ratio of 0.85 and above is a strong indicator of colorectal cancer with a risk factor of 52%)
When you measured your waist, was it larger than 35 inches?
(A large waist circumference, regardless of overall weight is linked to atherosclerosis (fatty build up in the arteries) and high blood pressure)
The good news is that visceral fat is even easier to budge than subcutaneous fat, so while your waist circumference may shrink; your love handles just might remain!
With adequate exercise and diet it should only take a couple of months to drop the inches around your waist. Don’t worry if your overall weight doesn’t change that much, remember, in the interest of your health, girth, rather than weight is a better indicator of good health. Remember that spot exercising, such as sit-ups and abdominal crunches only tones the muscles and doesn’t budge the fat. For rapid results try low intensity cardio work outs like brisk walking, skipping and aerobics 30 minutes a day and gradually build up to about 1 hour every other day. While exercising, better results are seen if you include rest periods of about a minute for every fifteen minutes of intense work out.
So, you should have learned that as a black woman the risk of accumulating potentially harmful abdominal fat is higher than in other ethnicities. You should also know what visceral fat is and how it puts you at risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and how to spot the danger signs. However, there is no need to panic because with diet and exercise you can lose the one or two inches from your waist that will put you back in the safe zone.
To keep being fabulous and healthy, remember to relax (or risk those pesky cortisol hormones), eat well, exercise and love your curves, its mostly just cuddly subcutaneous fat which will not harm you anyway