Even putting on a little bit of weight around the waist can dramatically increase a person's chances of suffering from heart disease, new research shows.
The study found there is a noticeably higher risk of cardiovascular problems even from a small expansion of stomach size, even though someone's overall weight may still be within the normal range.
Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas published their findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC).
The researchers looked at 2,744 men and women with an average age of 45.
They then examined the relationship between a person's body shape and early signs of disease in the arteries.
The data shows that the likelihood of there being calcium deposits in the arteries grows in direct proportion to the increase in waist to hip ratio (WHR).
Their work backs up claims from some experts that the WHR is a more important factor in measuring heart disease risk than body mass index (BMI) or waist circumference alone.
Dr James de Lemos, director of the coronary care unit at the centre, said: "In our 30s and 40s, we often gain three to four inches in the midsection.
"It's a day-to-day, meal-to-meal battle, but it's worth fighting.
"Even a small pot belly puts us at higher risk when compared to a flat tummy."
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