The Health Risks of Abdominal Obesity

Abdominal obesity refers to the presence of excess fat in the abdominal area. The abdomen is the part of your body between your chest and your pelvis. Those who are "apple-shaped" tend to store excess body fat around their stomach and abdomen. Abdominal obesity is often referred to as "belly fat."

A person measuring their belly or waist with a soft tape measure

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Also Known As

A 2019 study describes abdominal obseity as:

  • Belly fat
  • Central obesity
  • Intra-abdominal fat

Example: Abdominal obesity raises the risk of some health problems, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.​

What Is Abdominal Obesity?

You may have heard the term "abdominal obesity" or "central adiposity" at your healthcare provider's office or on a medical show. The terms sound very complicated, but they are simply different ways of describing belly fat. If you carry too much fat around your belly, you have abdominal obesity.

So why does abdominal obesity matter? Because too much fat in your midsection may put you at greater risk for certain medical conditions than excess fat in your thighs or buttocks. Fat in your belly is sometimes called visceral fat and it surrounds important organs. Excess fat in the abdomen can put anyone at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease (heart disease), and for women it increases the chance of breast cancer.

How to Measure 

There are different ways to measure and assess belly fat. Abdominal obesity can be measured at the healthcare provider's office. Your healthcare provider may use expensive scanning equipment to see exactly where fat is located in your belly. But those tests can be costly and may be inconvenient.

There are easier ways to measure abdominal obesity. Each method requires a flexible tape measure (like the ones used for sewing) and takes just minutes to perform.

Abdominal Circumference

This method requires you to measure the size of your tummy, according to the National Institute of Health. First, wrap a tape measure around the widest part of your stomach, specifically across your belly button and above your hips, assuring it rests gently on the skin. Third, breathe in and then measure on the exhale.

The risk of heart disease and diabetes rises with measurement and is based on gender. For example, men are more at risk for chronic conditions if their waist measurement is greater than 40 inches, and for women, it is 35 inches.

Waist to Hip Ratio

The way that your belly measurement compares to your hip measurement is another way to assess your risk for heart disease. To calculate your waist to hip ratio you'll start by measuring your abdominal circumference (above). Then measure your hips around the widest part. Now divide your waist size by your hip size to get your waist to hip ratio.

If you are a man, your chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke increases as the number rises above 0.9 for men and 0.85 for women.

Can I Change It?

The best way to reduce abdominal obesity is to lose weight. Of course, as you slim down, you can't choose where on your body the weight loss will occur. So you may lose weight in your legs or hips and still keep some belly fat. But the weight reduction in your abdomen may help to improve your risk for heart disease.

Talk to your healthcare provider about how much weight you should lose to improve your health. Then take small steps to create lifelong changes to eat a healthy diet, exercise, decrease stress and improve your sense of well-being.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Penn Medicine. What Your Body Shape Reveals About Your Health.

  2. Bosomworth NJ. Normal-weight central obesity: Unique hazard of the toxic waist. The Canada College of Family Physicians. 2019;65(6):399-408. PMID: 31189627.

  3. Powell-Wiley TM, Poirier P, Burke LE, et al. Obesity and cardiovascular disease: a scientific statement from the american heart association. Circulation. 2021;143(21).

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Abdominal fat and what to do about it.

  5. Fang H, Berg E, Cheng X, Shen W. How to best assess abdominal obesity. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. 2018;21(5):360-365. doi. 10.1097/MCO.0000000000000485.

  6. Harvard School of Public Health. Measuring Obsesity.

  7. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Assesing Your Weight and Health Risk.

  8. The Harvard School of Public Health. Waist Size Matters.

By Jennifer R. Scott
Jennifer R. Scott is a weight loss writer. She designed her own successful weight loss plan, which helped her safely lose 50 pounds in about a year.