Could a big belly increase your stroke and heart attack risk?

Man measuring his large belly

According to widespread media coverage, if you have a large belly you’re at greater risk of heart and circulatory problems – whether you’re overweight or not. We look behind the headlines.

23 May 2018

The researchers found that people who were a normal weight but stored most of their fat around their waists had more than double the risk of problems such as heart attack, stroke, bypass surgery or death, compared with people who were overweight but not obese, and weren’t carrying excess weight around their middle. 

The researchers, from the Mayo Clinic based in Minnesota, USA, and St Anne’s University Hospital in the Czech Republic, looked at people’s BMI (body mass index) and waist to hip measurements.

The researchers suggested that those with a normal weight but more fat around their stomach had a 87 per cent increased risk of problems, compared to those who didn’t store weight around their middle. They suggested participants were 52 per cent more likely to have an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol if they had excess weight around their middle.

The research

This research was shown as a presentation at a conference, and a full research paper wasn’t available.

This is a weakness as the full details weren’t available to the press. Research papers are also usually peer-reviewed, which is important as it shows that other experts agree with their findings and support the claims the research is making.

It’s not clear how the participants in the study were followed up, or how regularly

Without a peer-reviewed research paper it is difficult to say how good their research was. This also means that the media coverage is less reliable if the reporters haven’t been able to see and check this research fully. 

Another weakness of this study was that it only looked at one community in Olmsted County, Minnesota, and looked at quite a small number of people (1,692 residents). The sample was representative of the population in the county for age and sex, but it is not representative of the UK population.

The participants had clinical examinations and their measurements taken for three years. They were then followed up for 16 years on average, which is quite a long follow-up period, but it’s not clear how they were followed up, or how regularly. 

The BHF view

Julie Ward, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “This study adds to an existing bank of research to suggest that belly fat increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and why waist measurement tends to be a better indicator of your overall risk than BMI.

There is much we still do not know about the behaviour of fat in the body

"However, obesity as a whole is still a major risk factor, so we can’t ignore BMI completely and it’s important to encourage people to keep their weight in check. 

"There is much we still do not know about the behaviour of fat in the body and why some people pack more fat around their hips, for example, and others around their stomach, so more research is needed to reveal some of these answers.”

How was the research reported?

The research received widespread news coverage, including in The Telegraph, Express, Daily Mail, and The Sun. The coverage was in line with the summary of the research that the researchers provided, but without having a full research paper all of the media coverage may be less reliable. 

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