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'Love Handles' Might Increase Risk of Disease

April 13, 1998|CAROL KRUCOFF

They're the "grab of flab" on the sides of the waist that give your sweetheart more of you to love. Known as "love handles," they're not found in any anatomy text, but they're a familiar sight around countless American middles--especially those of middle-aged men.

"The average American male picks up five to 10 pounds between his 25th and 35th birthday," says research scientist David F. Williamson of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Men's excess fat tends to accumulate in the midsection, largely as a result of hormones and heredity.

Although women typically pick up a little more weight than men during this same decade, their excess fat is usually stored in the lower body, giving most overweight women a pear shape, compared with most overweight men's apple silhouette. Research suggests that abdominal fat carries health risks not associated with extra pounds stored elsewhere, which means that apple-shaped people have a greater likelihood of numerous diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.

Whether love handles carry this extra risk is the subject of some controversy. Most experts agree that a potbelly is worse for you than "thunder thighs." But some consider the fat on the sides of the waist to be a cosmetic issue rather than a health problem, while others contend that flank flab is as bad as belly bulge.

"In general, if the circumference of the abdomen is greater than 40 inches in men or 35 inches in women, there is a good chance that person has significant visceral fat, which puts people at greater health risk," says internist Dr. Michael Hamilton, director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. This measurement should be taken at the natural indentation of the waist, as seen from behind.

But Hamilton dismisses love handles as superficial fat, which he says "doesn't count from a health point of view." Genetics can play such a strong role that even people who exercise and eat right may still have love handles, he says, and be perfectly fit.

Other experts contend that superficial fat around the midsection can be a health hazard. "Our research shows that if you have abdominal obesity, even on the sides of the body, you're at greater risk," says internist Dr. Scott Grundy, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center in Dallas. "The more [abdominal fat] there is, the bigger the risk."

The major health culprit is visceral fat, says endocrinologist Dr. Ahmed H. Kissebah, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Superficial fat "may have some additive effect," he says, "but it's less hazardous."

But since men tend to store fat "from the inside out," Kissebah says, "you must ask if this fat outside is a sign of too much fat inside."

How much is too much? "When there's an obvious fold in that stuff my daughter calls 'blubber,' " Kissebah says, "it's in someone's best interests to lose some weight." Other experts point to the old-fashioned pinch test: If you can pinch more than an inch, your love handles are too thick.


It's not necessary to eliminate love handles to boost health. For people who are obese, even small weight losses of 5% to 10% of body fat can reduce their health risks, says pediatrician Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC.

"Exercise is very important in reducing visceral fat," he says. Tobacco and alcohol use also are associated with increases in abdominal fat, he notes, although the specific mechanisms of the connection are still unknown. But quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol also may help reduce abdominal fat.

One reason people gain weight in midlife is that they become less active, says fitness expert Kathy Smith, whose 23 workout videos have sold more than 8 million copies. "Also, after age 25, people lose muscle mass," she says, at the rate of about one pound of muscle every two years. Since muscle tissue is the most metabolically active tissue in the body, "as you lose muscle mass, you burn fewer calories throughout the day," she says.

But this decline can be slowed or stopped by strength-training exercises, which boost muscle mass and metabolic rate so that your body burns a higher percentage of fat during activity and also at rest.


Although exercise will burn fat, which can reduce the size of love handles, it's impossible to spot reduce. Exercise gadgets advertised to whittle waists or take fat from a specific spot on your body don't work.

When you burn more calories than you take in, your body decides where it will reduce fat stores. If you want to lose fat, be sure to:

* Burn 150 calories per day through physical activity, such as a 30-minute walk. To maximize results, expend 250 calories four or five times a week.

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