Ammu Dinesh and Claire Viscione, National Center for Health Research
Belly fat is common among men and women. However, when a person’s body shape looks more like an apple than a pear, that could increase their likelihood of developing cancer.
More than two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight or obese.1 Most people know that obesity increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. But did you know that being overweight increases your chances of developing cancer, and that having an “apple” body shape due to belly fat can increase your chances of developing cancer even if you are not overweight?
Why is belly fat dangerous?
Whether your body fat is located at your waist (giving you an apple shape) or hips (giving you a pear shape) makes a difference to your health. Women tend to gain more belly fat as they get older. Regardless of their weight, white, black, and Latina women with a waistline measurement of 35 inches or more have higher health risks. This is also true for Asian women with a waistline of 31 inches or more. Although it is important to get rid of excess fat in general, belly fat is the most threatening to your health.
Physicians use often use body mass index (BMI) to estimate whether you are overweight or obese. However, determining your waist circumference is just as important. Even if you are not overweight or obese, if you have a lot of belly fat, you are more likely to develop cancer.
Unlike the fat that sits just beneath the skin, the fat that sits around internal organs is called visceral fat.2 This fat is the most dangerous, and it is typically what shows up as belly fat. If you measure your waistline, you can get a good idea of whether you have a dangerous amount of belly fat.
|Low health risk
|31.5 inches or less
|37 inches or less
|Intermediate health risk
|31.6 – 34.9 inches
|37.1 – 39.9 inches
|High health risk
|35 inches or more
|40 inches or more
Table 1. What does your waistline measurement mean? 2
Several studies have looked at the relationship between belly fat and cancer. One study followed over 150,000 post-menopausal women ages 50-79 for about 20 years.3 This study found that women who have extra belly fat are at higher risk of death regardless of their weight. Causes of death in the study included cardiovascular disease and cancer. The women of normal weight who had extra belly fat tended to be older, nonwhite, and with less education and income. They were also less likely to use menopausal hormones and to exercise.
To figure out your BMI for the chart below, enter your height and weight into this calculator.
|Apple Shape (Extra Belly Fat)
|Not “Apple Shape”
|Not Overweight (BMI below 25)
|20% more likely to die from cancer within 20 years
|Overweight (BMI of 25-29.9)
|19% more likely to die from cancer within 20 years
|4% less likely to die from cancer within 20 years
|Obese (BMI of 30 or higher)
|26% more likely to die from cancer within 20 years
|4% less likely to die from cancer within 20 years
Table 2. Likelihood of death due to cancer in women based on BMI.3
Women who were not overweight or obese but had extra belly fat were just as likely to die from cancer as overweight women with extra belly fat.
A different study followed over 3,000 men and women for 7 years.4 They used CT scans and physical exams to look at the fat throughout the body. Over the course of the study, the men and women developed 141 cases of cancer, 90 heart-related incidents, and 71 deaths from various causes. The study found that people with more belly fat, specifically visceral fat, were about 44% more likely to develop cancer and heart disease, even when adjusting for waist circumference.
What can you do?
As you can see, belly fat can be very dangerous, especially for women, even if they are not overweight. Losing weight or preventing weight gain can lower health risks. By exercising regularly, you can get rid of unhealthy belly fat. It is also important to change your diet to eat foods that are high in nutrients and essential vitamins. You can do this by eating more fresh vegetables, nuts, and whole-grain breads instead of processed meat, red meat, candy, pasta, and white bread. These few changes can help you lose belly fat and improve the quality and length of your life.
Local bans on unhealthy food and drinks may also be effective in reducing belly fat. A 2019 study shows that a ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages at a large college campus substantially decreased consumption and led to significantly less belly fat.5 Students who stopped drinking the beverages had improved insulin resistance and lower cholesterol. The combination of the ban and a brief motivational talk was even more effective than the ban by itself.
Learn more about how extra body fat can increase your risk for developing cancer, and how you can make a commitment to your health and reduce risky belly fat:
- Weight and Cancer: What you need to know
- Eating Habits That Improve Health and Help with Weight Loss and BMI
- Obesity in America: Are you part of the problem?
All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. FastStats- Overweight Prevalence. CDC.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm. Updated June 13, 2016.
- Harvard Health Publishing. Abdominal obesity and your health. Health.Harvard.edu. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/abdominal-obesity-and-your-health. September 2005. Updated January 20, 2017.
- Sun Y, Liu B, Snetselaar LG, Wallace RB, Caan BJ, Rohan TE, et al. Association of Normal-Weight Central Obesity With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality Among Postmenopausal Women. JAMA Network Open. 2019;2(7):e197337. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31339542.
- Britton KA, Massaro JM, Murabito JM, Kreger BE, Hoffmann U, Fox CS. Body Fat Distribution, Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and All-Cause Mortality. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2013; 62(10): 921-925. http://www.onlinejacc.org/content/62/10/921.
- Epel ES, Hartman A, Jacobs LM, Leung C, Cohn MA, Jensen L, et al. Association of a Workplace Sales Ban on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages With Employee Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Health. JAMA Network Open. 2019. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.4434