Almost everybody has a few stomach rolls when sitting down — even the supermodels who appear flawlessly airbrushed on glossy magazine pages. So, if you can pinch an inch or two when you're sitting, that's normal. But if you have too much stomach fat, it can signal increased risk of some serious health problems. There are a couple of inexpensive, easy tools you can use to determine if your level of stomach fat is perfectly normal or something you should take steps to remedy.
Feeling some fat around your belly is pretty normal — but it can be hard to tell if you have typical amounts of fat simply by squeezing your own belly. Simple tools like calculating body mass index and measuring your waist circumference can help you determine whether there's enough fat around your midsection to be an issue.
Calculate Body Mass Index
You may have heard of body mass index, or BMI, because it's a commonly used method of gauging whether you're at a healthy weight. Your BMI is your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters, but there's no need to do the math on your own — you can use an online BMI calculator. Most of them allow you to input your height in feet and inches and your weight in pounds.
BMI isn't perfect — as the National Institutes of Health point out, it tends to overestimate body fat in athletes and other muscular folks, and may underestimate body fat in older people or others who have reduced muscle mass. But for many people, it's a quick, easy and free way of assessing your approximate body fat levels and the health risks that may be associated with them.
Once you have your instant result back from the BMI calculator, you can interpret it using standardized values:
- Below 18.5: You are underweight.
- Between 18.5 and 24.9: You are normal weight.
- Between 25.0 and 29.9: You are overweight.
- 30.0 and above: You are obese.
Use a Measuring Tape
As previously mentioned, BMI tends to be inaccurate for people who either have a lot of muscle or very little. If you think you belong to one of these populations, or if you want another way of measuring your body fat and how it affects your health, try measuring your waist circumference.
Wrap a flexible tape measure around your bare belly at its widest point, usually the navel, and check the result. For men, if the measurement is equal to or less than 37 inches, you're in the low-risk category; if it's above 40 inches, you're considered high risk; if it's in between, you have an intermediate risk of health problems. For women, being under 31.5 inches is considered low risk, more than 35 inches is high risk, and in between is "moderate."
You can also measure around your hips at their widest point and then divide your waist measurement by your hip measurement to calculate your waist-to-hip ratio. For example, if you have a waist circumference of 36 inches and a hip measurement of 40 inches, you'd have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.9. According to Harvard Health Publishing, your risk of a heart attack or stroke rises if this ratio is higher than 0.95 for men or 0.85 for women — so that result would be in the high-risk category for women, and bordering on it for men.
Know the Health Risks
It might be tempting to write off concerns about a little extra fluff in the midsection as biased beauty standards. But while every body is beautiful, the health risks that come with having too much body fat, especially in your belly area, aren't so pretty. They include elevated triglycerides and too much LDL or "bad" cholesterol; elevated blood sugar and insulin levels; and serious conditions including cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and depression — just to name a few.
To make that midsection jiggle even more perplexing, belly fat comes in two forms: subcutaneous fat — the squishy sort that lives just under your skin — and visceral fat, which pads your internal organs and may present as more of a distended belly, a la the typical "apple" body shape that is larger around the belly but smaller in the shoulders and hips. Although both types of fat influence the risks described, visceral fat is the more dangerous of the two.
Read more: Five Types of Fitness Training
Use Your Fat Loss Tools
The good news is that all body fat, including visceral fat, responds to the tried and true tools of weight loss — adopting a healthy diet and more physical activity so that you'll burn more calories than you take in, and your body will burn stored fat as fuel. So if your BMI or waist circumference is higher than you feel comfortable with, or if you aren't happy about the jelly in your belly, you can do something about it.
Increasing physical activity means just that: Get up and move! The longer and more intense your periods of exercise, the more calories you'll burn. But while every little bit of movement adds up, there's no single "best belly fat burner," because the exercises you'll stick with best in the long term are the ones that you enjoy for their own sake. So get out there and dance, swim, bike, walk, run, paddle, chase kids, play soccer or shovel snow. It all counts.
The sweet spot for many people to lose weight is at least 60 minutes of energetic physical activity on most days, although how much you need to exercise also depends on how you eat.
Make Smart Food Choices
It's a real downer that making poor food choices can negate a lot of your exercise efforts, but the reverse is also true. Making smart choices about what you eat puts you in the driver's seat and can even reduce the amount of exercise you need to lose weight.
For some people, simply focusing on a nutrient-rich diet, in conjunction with all that physical activity, is enough to lose weight. Aim to eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with high-quality lean protein. Limit your intake of sodium, added sugars and unhealthy saturated fats; keep the exercise rolling, and you could be well on your way to losing that excess fat.
Read more: How to Meal Prep for Weight Loss Like a Pro
But if you want to see results faster, you can also count calories. The National Institutes of Health recommends cutting your daily calorie intake by 500 to 750 calories to see weight loss of 1 to 1.5 pounds per week. NIH also notes that most women can lose weight safely while staying in the range of 1,200 to 1,500 calories per day, and most men can lose weight safely with 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day. Don't go below those minimum amounts without guidance from a medical professional.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Adult BMI"
- National Institutes of Health: "Calculate Your BMI"
- National Institutes of Health: "Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Obesity and Your Health"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- National Institutes of Health: "Healthy Eating Plan"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Effect of Dairy Calcium or Supplementary Calcium Intake on Postprandial Fat Metabolism, Appetite, and Subsequent Energy Intake