5 Extra Pounds of Belly Fat Can Raise Blood Pressure

Small weight gain — we’re talking five pounds — isn’t uncommon in adults as they navigate through life. But gaining just five pounds may have additional side effects beyond making your jeans uncomfortable. Modest weight gain can increase your blood pressure, even in lean, healthy people. This is especially true if you tend to gain weight in the belly area.

In a new study presented today at the American Heart Association’s High Blood Pressure Researcher 2014 Scientific Sessions, scientists from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, reported that blood pressure increase was specifically related to weight gain around the abdominals, called belly fat.

It was surprising that even this modest change in weight results in a change in blood pressure, said study co-author Dr. Virend Somers, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic.

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With even a small weight gain, there is a significant increase in the overall risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke. While these findings are important on an individual level, the impact of these findings is multiplied as more and more adults fall into the overweight or obese category, Somers said.

“This is important to see on an individual level, but on the overall population as well,” he said.

Small Gains Don't Affect Cholesterol, Insulin

Researchers observed 26 normal weight study participants ages 18 to 48 over an eight-week period. Sixteen participants gained weight by overeating while 10 maintained their weight. The Mayo Clinic researchers took measurements of participants' body composition using X-ray and abdominal scans and blood pressure tests at the beginning and end of the study.

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The group that was trying to gain weight ate between 400 and 1,200 extra calories a day, choosing between an ice cream shake, a chocolate bar, or an energy drink. Researchers found that at the end of the study period, a 5 to 11 pound weight gain didn’t alter factors like cholesterol, insulin levels, or blood sugar levels, but it did increase participants' blood pressure. If the weight gained was in the abdomen, there was a greater increase in blood pressure.

“This is the kind of weight gain you get over the holidays or on a cruise or the college kids, recall the 'freshman 15' — this was only 10 pounds.” — Dr. Virend Somers, Mayo Clinic

Further study is needed to figure out why abdominal fat impacts blood pressure, though researchers believe that abdominal fat is metabolized differently.

“We can’t fall back on the assumption that 'oh, it’s just five or 10 pounds, it’s nothing.' It may be nothing for the individual, but the larger health consequences will be significant,” Somers said. “This is the kind of weight gain you get over the holidays or on a cruise or the college kids, recall the 'freshman 15' — this was only 10 pounds."

What’s the Big Deal?

While a couple of pounds here or there may not seem life threatening, these findings suggest that even a few pounds in key areas like the belly can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which opens you up to a slew of heart health risks. 

High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects about 67 million American adults, or 1 in every 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not even half — only 47 percent — have their high blood pressure under control.

The common condition is characterized by higher than normal pressure from blood pushing against blood vessel walls. Early stages of high blood pressure cause no symptoms, so it is also known as “the silent killer” because of the damage it can cause before diagnosis.

The effects of chronic high blood pressure can be extreme, including damage to the heart and arteries, stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, erectile dysfunction, and more, according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. A person's risk of developing high blood pressure increases with age, weight, cholesterol level, and unhealthy lifestyle choices.

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The good news is that there are ways to get your blood pressure under control. Making sure you get your blood pressure checked earlier in life rather than later is one way to ensure that the condition doesn’t sneak up on you.

How Can You Maintain Healthy Blood Pressure?

The steps to take control of your blood pressure are the same small daily habits that will lead to better overall health. While losing weight is one way to control blood pressure, there are other steps you can take in addition to diet and exercise.

The American Heart Association suggests:

  • eating a healthier diet and lowering salt intake
  • getting regular exercise
  • maintaining a healthy weight, and losing weight if you are overweight
  • managing stress levels
  • quitting smoking or avoiding tobacco smoke
  • following your medication regimen as prescribed by a doctor
  • limiting alcohol intake if you drink
  • understanding hot tub safety
    • Hot tubs and saunas cause vasodilatation, or the opening up of blood vessels. Moving between cold water and hot tubs or saunas can cause an increase in blood pressure.

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