Death: A New Excuse to Hate Your Belly Fat!

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Go away, please. Photo: Rudolf/Corbis

While you certainly don't need a six-pack to be healthy, having belly fat could be dangerous even if you aren't technically overweight, new research suggests.

For a study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at the Mayo Clinic collected waist-to-hip-ratio and body-mass-index (BMI) data for more than 15,000 people to determine how these measures correlated with any deaths that might occur. After 14 years, about 3,200 died and about 1,400 of those deaths could be attributed to heart disease. Not terribly surprising: Men and women with BMIs in the obese range (30 or above) were more likely to die than people considered to be a normal weight or overweight by BMI.

But normal-weight people with higher waist-to-hip ratios had worse mortality rates than people of any BMI who had "a more even fat distribution." That's right, an obese person's risk of dying was lower than that of a normal-weight person with a muffin top. (This unhealthy "central obesity" was defined as a waist-to-hip ratio above 0.9 for men and 0.85 for women.) The researchers' aim here wasn't to figure out why belly fat is worse for people than other kinds of fat, but experts believe that such visceral fat in the abdomen is more metabolically active than regular subcutaneous fat and might cause inflammation, increasing people's risk for heart disease and other health conditions.

This is not great news, yet the silver lining is that it's another nail in the coffin for the simple-but-maligned BMI as an indicator of health.