For men, having belly fat is more dangerous than you think, South Florida doctors say

We all know that men and women carry weight differently.

Women tend to store fat around their hips, buttocks and thighs, while men watch their waistlines grow.

But did you know belly fat can be more dangerous than fat stored elsewhere in the body?

“The fat in our belly is different,’’ said Dr. Arthur Agatston, the director of wellness and prevention at Baptist Health South Florida, and the creator of the popular South Beach Diet. “It’s really the belly fat that determines risk.’’

Men, in particular, should take note.

A long time ago, abdominal fat made sense.

“The reason it is there is that early man, when he was living in the wild, went through times of feast and famine,’’ Agatston said. “It would be a big survival advantage if, during times of feast, you could store some extra fat and live off of it in the winter.’’

Fat accumulated around the belly so early that man could still run and hunt. But in our super-sized society, there is far more feast than famine. So men sometimes find themselves packing on the pounds.

Like the fat that accumulates elsewhere on the body, belly fat increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

But abdominal fat — more so than other types of fat — can cause inflammation, said Dr. Ronald Goldberg, professor of medicine in the Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism Division at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“When fat increases in this abdominal area, the tissues get stressed very easily and they develop an inflammatory response,’’ Goldberg explained. “If this is just a short-term thing, it subsides and everything goes back to normal. But when you pack fat into your belly, this inflammation can become chronic and lead to tissue damage.’’

Abdominal fat also produces hormones and chemicals called cytokines, which can cause the body to develop a resistance to insulin. That can lead to diabetes.

Agatston points out another fact to his patients: Belly fat is associated with low testosterone levels. Men with big bellies don't often have the same muscle mass, energy levels and libido as fit men do, he said.

“If there are problems above the belt, there may be problems below the belt, too,’’ he said.

How can you tell if you are at risk?

“The easiest and simple way to assess this is to take measuring tape and, standing up, measure your abdominal girth,’’ said Dr. Carlos Zamora, a cardiologist in the Columbia University Division of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “The higher the number, the higher the risk.’’

Men who have a waist larger than 40 inches should consider changing their diets and exercise habits, Zamora said.

“If you start eating less and exercising more — burning more calories than you have taken in — that’s how you are going to get rid of this,’’ Zamora said.

Zamora tells his patients to find a form of exercising they enjoy.

“If not, you are going to drop out,’’ he said. “Just walking at a moderate pace for 30 minutes every day already reduces your risk of heart attack by two or three times.”

Agatston says it is “relatively easy” for men to lose belly fat.

“But if you don’t turn the [healthy eating and exercise] into a lifestyle, the weight will yo-yo back on,’’ he said.

Al Valdes, of Miami, cut his weight from 225 pounds to 160 pounds. He keeps the pounds off by avoiding red meat.

“I eat a lot of fish, vegetables, milk and cereal,’’ the 69-year-old retiree said.

Valdes said his inspiration is his 8-year-old grandson.

“I want to see my grandson graduate high school,” he said. “I have to stick around for a few more years.”

Contact Kathleen McGrory at