Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.

With winter winding down and swimsuit season right around the corner, our thoughts often turn to the few pounds that we may have put on since the holidays. And if you’re like many people, those few pounds may be clinging to your middle just like, well, a spare tire. Even if you’re not overweight or looking to lose weight, you may have noticed (especially if you’re a menopausal woman) that your weight has shifted and that your midsection is thicker than it used to be. Self, meet belly fat.

What is belly fat? And why does it matter?

Belly fat is just what the name implies. It’s fat that piles on around your waist and in your abdominal section. The good news, if you want to view it as such, is that everyone has some belly fat—even supermodels and physically fit people. However, unlike fat in other areas of your body, such as your arms, thighs, or under your chin, belly fat is deeper and more serious in terms of its health implications.

Another term for belly fat is visceral fat. Visceral fat is not your run-of-the-mill type of fat. Rather, it’s a vicious type of fat that wraps itself around the internal organs. Subcutaneous fat, on other hand, is a layer of fat that lies just beneath the skin. It’s annoying for sure, but it’s pretty harmless compared to visceral fat.

> Unlike fat in other areas of your body, belly fat is more serious in terms of its health implications.

Keep in mind that belly fat is generally a combination of both subcutaneous and visceral fat. While there’s no easy way to know how much of each you have (short of having a CT scan or an MRI), grab a tape measure and check your waist circumference. Women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches and men with a waist circumference great than 40 inches likely have a fair amount of visceral fat.

What’s bad about belly fat?

As annoying as it is that you can barely button your jeans or zip up your skirt, the real concern about too much belly fat is that it can spell some serious health issues. These include a higher risk for:

  • Heart disease
  • Insulin resistance
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Asthma
  • Dementia
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Premature death

According to a recent study of almost 162,000 women age 50 to 79 who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative, the risk of dying was higher in women who had a waist circumference of more than 31.5 inches; for those with a waist measurement of more than 35 inches, the risk was considered to be “extreme.”

So why is belly fat so toxic? It has to do with fat cells. Don’t be fooled—fat cells are stealthy. They seem like harmless blobs, but like other organs in the body, they quietly keep busy, pumping out hormones and other chemicals that negatively affect health. In addition, belly fat is situated right near the portal vein that moves blood from the gastrointestinal tract to the liver. The chemicals from visceral fat are transported via the portal vein to the liver where they can affect the production of blood lipids and also cause insulin resistance.

How do you get rid of belly fat?

There’s good news and not-so-good news. First, the good news: you can shrink your belly fat. You won’t get rid of it completely, because, again, everyone has belly fat. But reducing it can be done. Now, the not-so-good news? It will require some effort and dedication. Here’s how:

  • Get— and keep—moving. According to a Duke University study, aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, or bicycling, is the best type of exercise to get rid of your belly bulge, as opposed to resistance training, because it burns more calories. Work up to exercising 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  • Work on losing weight. Losing weight isn’t always easy to do. Yet, losing just five to 10 percent of your body weight can help banish belly fat. Aim to lose weight gradually—say, one or two pounds per week. You’ll stand a better chance of keeping it off longer.
  • Squeeze in soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is the gummy type of fiber that can help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. As it turns out, it might also shrink your belly. A study out of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that eating soluble fiber from beans, fruits, and vegetables helped to reduce belly fat. In fact, for every 10-gram increase in soluble fiber, visceral fat decreased by almost four percent over five years. How can you get 10 grams of soluble fiber? One cup of beans has close to five grams; a bowl of oatmeal has three grams; and an orange has about two grams.
  • Get some sleep, but not too much. Constantly shortchanging yourself of sleep can eventually catch up with you in more ways than one. According to one study, adults under the age of 40 who got five or fewer hours per night or more than eight hours per night increased their visceral fat.
  • Quit smoking. There aren’t enough bad things to say about smoking. Add this one to the list: smokers tend to have more visceral fat than non-smokers. In addition, smoking increases insulin resistance and the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Go for the (whole) grain. According to a study out of Tufts University, visceral fat was 10 percent lower in people who reported eating three or more servings of whole grains per day and who also limited their intake of refined grains to less than one serving per day. Examples of whole-grain foods include steel-cut oats, brown rice, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread.
  • Cook with canola oil. Canola oil has less saturated fat than most vegetable oils. In one study, people who replaced their usual cooking oil with canola oil had a quarter pound less of belly fat after just four weeks.

If you have concerns about your weight—specifically, your belly fat—talk with your doctor and maybe your dietitian. Work out a plan to whittle your middle and reduce your risks of future health problems.

Have you tried to reduce belly fat? What worked (or didn’t)? Share what you’ve learned by commenting below.