The Scary Connection Between Belly Fat and Cancer Risk

If your favorite past times include enjoying beer with your friends and ordering high-calorie junk food from your favorite restaurants, we don’t blame you. But as you know, all this can result in an expanding waistline. And it’s not just your heart doctors are worried about now — they’re also concerned for your increased risk of cancer.

Here’s what you need to know about the link between belly fat and your cancer risk.

Studies show how harmful stomach fat really is

A close-up on a man's stomach as he rubs it.

A large belly can indicate serious health problems. |

First, it’s important to know you have two layers of fat, U.S. News & World Report notes. The top layer that sits directly above your skin isn’t nearly as harmful as the deeper layer, or visceral fat, that surrounds your organs and makes your stomach look larger. According to Michigan State University researchers, the visceral fat in mice produced a protein that turns healthy cells into cancerous ones.

It’s important to remember that this was only studied on mice, however, and studies on humans are more conclusive.

Hormones released from fat can increase your cancer risk, too

A woman in a white tank top holds her stomach.

If you take good care of your stomach, it will take care of you. | Andrey Popov/iStock/Getty Images

While you probably think of fat as just the excess pudge around your middle, it’s important to remember it does more than just sit on your body. The deeper layers of fat actually secrete estrogen, which may contribute to increased breast cancer risk.

Here’s something interesting, though: A study performed on 620 women with breast cancer showed those with larger waists were more likely to develop hormone-receptor-negative breast cancer than those with smaller waistlines. This means this type of the disease did not grow in response to hormones, like estrogen. Researchers are still trying to figure out how this could be.

The types of cancer associated with belly fat

Doctor talking to a patient in an office.

Your doctor can help you determine any long-term consequences. | Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center says stomach fat may be increasing your risk of colorectal, pancreatic, uterine, and breast cancers. Essentially, that visceral fat can damage your organs and tell it to make more insulin than you really need. This can lead to cancer, but it can also lead to diabetes. And for post-menopausal women who start to gain more fat in their abdomen area, this can disrupt your hormones, leading to an increased risk of breast and uterine cancers.

A large waist is also horrible for your heart

Heart healthy foods on a white table with fitness and medical gear.

A healthy belly = a healthy heart. | Udra/iStock/Getty Images

As if cancer wasn’t enough, all that belly fat is also putting a major strain on your heart. Even if you’re not seriously overweight, those who carry more weight in their abdominal area are at a much greater risk for heart disease than those who carry their weight in other areas.

Want to know your risk? The Heart Foundation says it’s easy — just measure your waist. Women should have a waist smaller than 31.5 inches, and for men, it should be 37 inches max.

Here’s how to measure your waistline

A woman measuring her stomach with a measuring tape.

Genetics play a big part in your waist size. | Marina Zg/iStock/Getty Images

Measuring your waist is easy, and it can be a better indicator of your health than just the scale alone. First, know where your waist is by finding the top of your hip bone and the bottom of your ribs. Breathe out as you normally would, and use a tape measure between these two points to find your waist measurement.

Certain instances, like pregnancy or some medical conditions, can make your waist measurement less accurate. But for most, this is an easy indicator of how much excess fat you’re carrying around your middle.

Look at your diet to reduce stomach fat

Organic Egg Baked on a wooden table.

As a rule of thumb, avoid sugary and processed foods. | Bhofack2/iStock/Getty Images

Sorry, but endless crunches won’t reduce the amount of fat you have around your midsection. To cut down on belly bulge, you’ll want to fill your diet with lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Refined sugars and alcohol are highly inflammatory and very caloric, so they won’t help you lose the tummy. And in addition to cutting back on the junk food, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, as this will lower your stress levels and reduce your cravings.

Genetics play a big role

A woman sits at a counter holding a green apple.

You can implement a healthy lifestyle to control your belly fat. | DragonImages/iStock/ Getty Images

When it comes to cancer (and where you store fat, for that matter), genetics really are king. If you’re more apple-shaped, you’ll naturally store more fat in your middle — and there’s no getting around a family history of disease. That’s why it’s important to take note of lowering your risk in all the ways that are in your control.

There are other surprising cancer risk factors, like sitting too much, working at night, and eating charred meats that are extremely harmful to your health. Learn all the ways you’re unknowingly harming your body so that little bit of extra belly fat isn’t as big of a concern.