Americans are losing the battle with belly fat. The average waist circumference of U.S. adults increased by more than an inch (from 37.6 inches to 38.8 inches) since 2000, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And, sadly, when researchers looked at certain groups, researchers found that young women saw especially big gains, according to the Los Angeles Times: African American women in their 30s saw their average waist size grow by nearly 4.6 inches, and white women in their 40s added an average of 2.6 inches to their waists. Overall, women’s waistlines grew twice as much as men’s.

So what’s the big deal? Sadly, belly fat isn’t just bad news when it comes to fitting into your clothes, it’s a big issue for your long-term health. Here, 3 reasons to work on shedding it.

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Ready to tackle your waistline? Check out these tips:

  • How to Eat to Shrink Your Waist
  • 4 Exercises That Blast Belly Fat
  • 11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

It’s worse than other types of fat

Whereas fat stored in say, your thighs, just sits there, the fat stored in your midsection (called visceral fat) is “biologically active,” according to Harvard Medical School. In fact, experts think of it more like an extra organ or gland because it produces hormones that can affect your health, especially those related to appetite and metabolism, like adiponectin and leptin. Visceral fat also increases your risk for type 2 diabetes (excess fat interferes with blood sugar-regulating insulin) and lung problems (less room in the chest means decreased lung function).

It hurts your heart

Visceral fat also pumps out cytokines, proteins normally associated with the immune system, which can up your risk for heart disease by promoting constant low-level inflammation and insulin resistance. Fatty acids released by belly fat are also linked to higher LDL or “bad” cholesterol and lower HDL or “good” cholesterol. Worth repeating: heart disease remains the number one killer of American women.

It ups your breast cancer risk

Being obese or overweight in general can up your risk for breast cancer because body fat produces the hormone estrogen, which feeds breast cancer cells. But abdominal fat in particular has its own risks: Pre-menopausal women with a large waist are more likely to develop breast cancer that is estrogen receptor (ER)-negative, according to a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (ER-negative means that estrogen doesn’t stimulate growth of the cancer.)

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