Do you have extra jiggle around the middle? The good news and bad news is you're not alone: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that having obesity affects about 93.3 million American adults. Once you've determined if you're dealing with loose skin or fat, you can take meaningful action.
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Can You Pinch an Inch?
You have all the tools you need to tell the difference between extra skin vs. fat hanging on around your middle. Take the smallest pinch of skin you can on the outside of your wrist or even, carefully, on the back of your hand. If you press those pinching fingers together, there's very little substance to the skin between them. The same is true of pinching loose skin anywhere on your body; it's just easier to get at on your hand or wrist.
Now, see if you can "pinch an inch" around your midsection. Don't worry if you get more than an inch; almost everybody, even supermodels and athletes, develops some sort of a roll when they sit down. You'll probably notice that your fingers aren't anywhere near as close together as when you pinched skin from the back of your hand or wrist.
That extra "padding" you've pinched up is the layer of subcutaneous fat that lives just underneath your skin. This represents stored energy and, while you need a certain amount of fat to stay healthy, having too much of it — aka having overweight or having obesity — represents a serious health risk.
Visceral Fat May Lurk Within
Even if you can't pinch much of a roll around your abdomen, it's possible that you do still have abdominal fat. You've already met the idea of the just-under-the-skin subcutaneous fat that exists all over your body, including your abdomen. But there's another type of abdominal fat known as visceral fat, which resides deep in your abdominal cavity and pads the space between your internal organs. Again, having a certain amount of this fat serves an important function — your organs need that padding.
But as Harvard Health Publishing explains, having too much visceral fat is associated with even greater health risks than having too much subcutaneous fat, although the mechanism behind those risks isn't entirely understood. They theorize that the elevated risk comes in part from immune system chemicals produced by visceral fat, and the visceral fat's location near the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestines to the liver.
High amounts of visceral fat are particularly associated with the "apple" body shape, which is bigger around the waist than at the hips — so this may or may not apply to you. But visceral fat is still something to be aware of, especially since its deep, internal location can create more of a distended abdomen than the just-under-the-skin adiposity you get from the more familiar subcutaneous fat.
Measuring your waist circumference is an easy, inexpensive way of screening whether you're at increased risk of health problems from excess abdominal fat. As explained at Rutgers, a waist circumference of greater than 35 inches for women or more than 40 inches for men signals elevated risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Measure waist circumference by wrapping a flexible measuring tape around your middle, just above your hipbones. Make sure the tape is horizontal — not slanted — and take the measurement just after you breathe out.
About Loose Skin
As you can already see from that pinch-an-inch test, if you have extra body fat around your middle it's pretty obvious. Loose skin is pretty obvious too: It may sag or drape visibly on its own, as if you'd permanently pinched an inch even when your hand isn't there. If you have a few folds or wrinkles of loose skin, there can still be subcutaneous fat involved — but the extra skin will be visibly apparent.
What the heck is that extra skin doing around your middle? Odds are good that it's due to a sudden or drastic weight loss, or any other major change in body shape — pregnancy included. Although there are a few things you can do to reduce loose skin or handle its presence, in severe cases you may need loose skin surgery or, as it's more properly known, a body contouring procedure. Talk to your doctor to find out if this sort of procedure could be of benefit to you.
Read more: How to Tighten Up Loose Stomach Fat
Measuring Your Body Fat
If you'd like something a little more concrete than the "pinch an inch" test, there are a few other ways of estimating how much body fat you're carrying. The only test that's specific to your midsection is the already described waist circumference test but, but having whole-body information about your body fat is useful for two reasons.
First, you can't slim fat away from only one body part at a time; when you gain or lose weight it happens all over your body, dictated by a number of factors including your genetic profile, body type and hormone levels. And second, although excess abdominal fat is associated with elevated health risks, having too much subcutaneous body fat can be dangerous too. Even if your midsection is the body part that jumps out at you most in the mirror, your entire body matters.
Happily, as the Obesity Action Coalition explains, losing even 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can create a dramatic improvement in your overall health. The following methods can help you determine whether you need to lose weight, then track progress along your weight loss journey.
Body circumference measurements. These are much like the aforementioned waist circumference test, but you take measurements at other points of interest including your hips, chest, arms, thighs and calves. Unless you're a remarkably industrious bodybuilder, as your percentage of body fat goes down those measurements will go down too. Keep a log of your measurements to track your progress over time.
Online BMI calculator. This option isn't very accurate, and it tends to be especially inaccurate at extremes of the scale. But online BMI calculators are a rough, ready and completely free way of seeing if your body weight correlates as healthy when compared to your height.
Bioelectrical impedance analysis. This method passes a weak electrical current through your body, then uses the current's time in transit to estimate your ratio of lean body mass to adipose tissue (fat). You'll find bioelectrical impedance analysis or BIA mechanisms on some bathroom scales, or in purpose-built handheld devices.
Skinfold measurements. This method requires the help of another person and a specialized set of calipers to measure the thickness of folds of skin at particular points on your body. For accurate results, the person doing the measuring should have specific training in this technique, so it's best done with the aid of a personal trainer or other fitness professional. For the best accuracy, have the same trainer take your skinfold measurements every time.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Adult Obesity Facts"
- Rutgers: "Assessing Your Weight: Are You at Health Risk?"
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons: "Body Contouring"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Benefits of 5-10 Percent Weight Loss"
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Calculate Your Body Mass Index"