The idea of belly fat may sound jolly, like Santa, smiling Buddha statues, or the Pillsbury Doughboy. But belly fat is bad news. Research continues to pile up implicating belly fat as a cause for increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.

Fat itself is not bad. Our bodies need fat. Our fatty tissue stores up energy, regulates hormone function, helps us absorb vitamins and minerals, and provides us with built-in insulation. In fact, 20% to 35% of our daily calories should come from fat. Yep, our bodies need fat - just not too much, and not in certain parts of our bodies. Too much fat, especially saturated and trans-fats, and our bodies can become vulnerable to disease.

You may be asking yourself why belly fat can cause more harm than, say, the fat that dimples the thighs or heaps onto the hips. To answer that, you need to get to know the two kinds of fat we all have in our belly region: subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.

Subcutaneous fat is that fat you can see and grab onto - all those beer bellies, spare tires, pouches, and love handles. It's the fat that makes a person look fat. Visceral fat, that's the fat that hides inside. Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds the abdominal organs. Visceral fat is more insidious because it's so hard to detect, and because it is also affected by genetics in addition to an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.

Wondering now if you have visceral fat lurking inside? Researchers use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), where a magnetic field and energy pulses are used to create an image of the inside of the belly. Since MRIs are not practical for most people, you can use other methods to assess the amount of belly fat you have.

One way is to measure your waist-to-hip ratio. Apple-shaped people - those who carry more of their weight around their waist - are more likely to be storing up visceral fat. Another way is to feel your belly: is it flabby or firm? If it's firm, you may have visceral fat. But visceral fat is not just a burden of the obese and the beer-bellied. A thin person can have too much visceral fat and be at as great of a health risk as someone twice their weight.

Tips to banish hidden belly fat

  • Mind your middle. Keep track of your waist-to-hip ratio as well as your body mass index (BMI). Make a note on your calendar to measure your waist and hips every other month or so. If measurements reveal that your waist is wider than your hips, take it as an urgent signal to try to lose some of your belly weight. Women, watch out if your waist expands beyond 35 inches. And men, your upper limit should be 40 inches. If your waist size falls into the danger zone and your BMI is 25 or more, you're at risk of heart disease.

  • Chew the good fat. If 20% to 35% of your daily calories should come from fat, make most of it the good kind of fat - either mono- or polyunsaturated fats. Tasty foods with healthy fats include salmon, avocados, olives, and walnuts. Cook with vegetable oils, like canola, olive, or sunflower oil. Avoid foods high in saturated fats and carbohydrates.

  • Move it to lose it. Routine, moderate exercise helps to fend off the fat, and more strenuous activity burns off existing fat. And phew, there are some good news about visceral fat: it's the first fat to go once you start shedding pounds! Keep the bigger picture in mind when you're working out since spot weight loss is tough. Just doing a bunch of crunches won't get to the underlying layers of visceral fat. Go for fat-burning cardiovascular exercise as well as moves that firm up and strengthen the abdominal area. You should check-in with your doctor before starting any vigorous exercise program.

  • Lighten up. Now, don't let this tension-belly fat connection stress you out, and find ways to unwind. Research has shown that body stress levels may be related to belly fat. And looking at the stress levels of people today, you'd think we were all being chased by wild animals. Exercise can help you to de-stress and avoid belly fat buildup (see tip no. 3). Yoga also works the body and the breathing and meditative components can help to calm the mind.

  • Get tested.If you're worried about your risks, check with your doctor, who can order tests to further assess your risk.  
  • Amy Toffelmire