A deadly condition affecting up to 15 million Britons has been dubbed the new ‘silent killer’ by scientists.
Bulging waists have triggered an epidemic in ‘metabolic syndrome’ – an umbrella term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, they said.
It puts you at greater risk of heart disease, stroke and other illnesses that affect the blood vessels.
Researchers have warned that ‘love handles’ can be fatal, likening the crisis to soaring rates of hypertension in the 1970s fuelled by increased salt consumption.
Professor Charles Hennekens, of Florida Atlantic University, said: “The major factor accelerating the pathway to metabolic syndrome is [being overweight and obesity. Obesity is overtaking smoking as the leading avoidable cause of premature death in the US and worldwide.”
Metabolic syndrome affects one in four adults in the UK. According to the NHS, the condition can be prevented or reversed by making a number of lifestyle changes including: losing weight, exercising regularly, eating healthily, quitting smoking and cutting down on alcohol.
Doctors have traditionally evaluated each of the major risk factors of metabolic syndrome on an individual basis. But now there is evidence that they are more than just the sum of their parts.
On their own, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity can damage your blood vessels, but having all three together is particularly dangerous.
For optimal health, the waist should measure less than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.
Visceral fat collects around organs like the liver, pancreas and intestines and leads to insulin resistance.
Additionally, adipose tissue may produce various chemicals that can separately increase insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease risk factors.
The researchers said metabolic syndrome is a ‘silent killer’ because it is largely without symptoms.
Those affected are almost as likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack over the next 10 years as a patient who has already had one, according to a standard health measure known as the Framingham Risk Score.
Moreover, the researchers are concerned metabolic syndrome is both under diagnosed and under treated.
Co-author Professor Dawn Sherling said: “Visceral fat and its clinically more easily measured correlate of waist circumference are gaining increasing attention as strong predictors of metabolic syndrome even if you remove body mass index from the equation.
“There are patients who have a normal body mass index yet are at high risk. These patients represent an important population for clinicians to screen for metabolic syndrome.”
The researchers emphasise the importance of therapeutic lifestyle changes beginning in childhood.
Team member Professor Parvathi Perumareddi said: “The pandemic of obesity, which begins in childhood, is deeply concerning.
“Adolescents today are more obese and less physically active than their parents and already have higher rates of type 2 diabetes.”
Writing in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics, the researchers say obesity is a major risk factor for several types of cancer, especially bowel, breast and prostate.
Professor Hennekens added that in the US, “cardiovascular disease will remain the leading killer due largely to obesity and physical inactivity”.
“Unfortunately, most people prefer prescription of pills to proscription of harmful lifestyles,” he added.
“The totality of evidence indicates weight loss of five percent or more of body weight combined with a brisk walk for 20 or more minutes daily will significantly reduce cardiovascular events and deaths.”