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With obesity affection approximately 39.8% of American adults, it’s a problem that demands our attention. The growing obesity epidemic is a costly problem that plagues our nation, but the solution to this problem is in your hands!

While any form of obesity carries health risks, experts warn that the biggest consequences are experienced by those who carry their excess fat specifically in the area of their stomach. Often referred to as a ‘beer belly’ or your ‘gut’, this type of fat has been normalized in our society. However, by downplaying the risks we may actually be setting ourselves up for serious problems down the road. Belly fat has been associated with strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, fatty liver, cancer, diabetes, depression, and more.

In fact, your waist measurement may provide more insight into your health and well-being than your body-mass index (BMI), the standard that is currently accepted in our country. A waist that measures 35 inches or larger for women, or 40 inches or larger for men, can indicate serious health risks. To obtain an accurate measurement, stand up tall, exhale and then measure your girth with a soft measuring tape approximately 1-2 inches above your hip bones. No sucking in your gut!

If your basic health care needs aren’t reason enough to make a change, consider the financial ramifications. A 2008 study explored the connection between waist size and annual health care costs. Shockingly, they concluded that for every additional inch added to a healthy waistline, health care costs for women rose by approximately 3% or 5% for men.

Why are experts worrying so much about abdominal fat? Fat outside of this area is called subcutaneous fat, fatty tissues that exist just beneath the skin. While this is a contributor to poor health, it’s not a major concern. However, fat located within the abdomen is called visceral fat, which means that it exists around the body’s internal organs. This is a bigger concern as it’s ability to impact the organs directly. This means that its influence is felt sooner and more intensely.

Recognizing the incredible risks of belly fat to the American population, Shawn Arent, director of the Center for Health and Human Performance at Rutgers University has made it his mission to educate the general public on the secret to eliminating this fat once and for all. “Other than surgery, exercise is the only way to change your body shape,” Arent advises, however, you can’t spot reduce. Instead, you need to work on reducing your overall body fat, which will, ultimately, reduce your gut. He specifically highlights the importance of strength training to reduce one’s overall body-fat percentage. “The benefits of exercise are pretty damn robust,” Arent adds. “Exercise is medicine.”

Furthermore, it’s important to consider not only how you’re burning calories, but also the fuel that you are putting into your body. In order to optimize your nutrition, Arent recommends reducing the processed carbohydrates, added sugars and calories from alcohol. Instead, he recommends filling up on plenty of fresh vegetables, healthy proteins, and whole grains.