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The Risks of Belly Fat

In the late 1990s, Ginger Moore was at a health crossroads. Like many others in their early 40s, she'd packed on some extra pounds around the middle.

She's the first to admit that she ate "for all the wrong reasons." The biggest one: "to comfort myself emotionally after a bad day."

But her experience with her parents was enough to tell her that she, too, was on the road to heart disease and diabetes. Moore was beginning to worry about what might be ahead for her.

Even though she wasn't seriously overweight, when she read in the local paper about a diabetes prevention clinic, she decided to check it out. She found out she was prediabetic, and there was a good chance she'd get diabetes within the next 10 years.

That's when she decided to lose her "spare tire." What she didn't know at the time was that not only would she be staving off diabetes and heart disease, she could also lower her odds of some types of cancer.

All Fat Is Not Equal

The fat that lies just below your skin in most of your body -- the kind you can grab with your hands -- is called subcutaneous fat. In your belly, it's called visceral fat because it builds up in the spaces between and around your viscera -- internal organs like your stomach and intestines.

This visceral fat in your middle makes toxins that affect the way your body works, says Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, president of the American Diabetes Association. Among them are chemicals called cytokines that boost your chances of heart disease and make your body less sensitive to insulin, which can bring on diabetes.

Cytokines also cause inflammation, which can lead to certain cancers, says Eric Jacobs, PhD, a researcher at the American Cancer Society. In recent years, he says, scientists have uncovered links between belly fat and cancers of the colon, esophagus, and pancreas.

The Hidden Health Risk

Belly fat is sneaky. Because it's tucked away inside your body, Dagogo-Jack says, you could have "a false sense of security" about how healthy you actually are. You may not be seriously overweight, but that doesn't mean you don't have a problem.