Bye-Bye, Belly Fat
Strategies to Win the Battle of the Bulge
Looking good at the beach isn’t the only reason to flatten our tummies. It turns out that abdominal fat has a major impact on whether we stay healthy and vital or put ourselves at increased risk for several chronic diseases.
All of us need a bit of internal belly fat, according to nutritional expert Dr. Pamela Peeke, who says, “We need stomach fat to help cushion organs and maintain internal body temperature; it’s also a good source of backup fuel.” Peeke is the author of Body for Life for Women and Fight Fat After Forty.
Two Types of Fat
Ringing all our midsections are two different kinds of fat: subcutaneous, beneath the skin; and visceral, stored deep in the body around major organs. Each functions differently on a biological level.
Subcutaneous, or “passive” fat, requires metabolic intervention from other body systems and glands in order to be processed for energy. Visceral, or “active,” fat functions much like a gland itself: It is programmed to break down and release fatty acids and other hormonal substances that are metabolized by the liver (it’s also what tends to make a tummy protrude in classic “beer belly” fashion).
Health experts Dr. Marie Savard, M.D., and Carol Svec, co-authors of The Body Shape Solution to Weight Loss and Wellness, state in their book, “Excess visceral fat can lead to increased blood sugar and higher insulin levels, and it also generates increased inflammation, all of which are the perfect setup for diabetes, certain types of cancers and stroke.”
There is no single answer to the riddle of weight gain; it involves four factors—genetics, eating habits, stress and hormones. Some of us, says Savard, are destined to be “apples,” gaining weight in the stomach and upper-body region, while others are fated to be “pears,” putting it on in the hips, buttocks, thighs and lower legs.
Abdominal fat is produced when we ingest more caloric energy than our bodies can use. “It’s certainly no secret that the way we eat is out of sync with our body’s needs,” writes Floyd H. Chilton, Ph.D., in Inflammation Nation: The First Clinically Proven Eating Plan to End Our Nation’s Secret Epidemic: “Most of the evolutionary forces that shaped our genetic development were exerted 10,000 years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers. Nothing in that programming could have prepared us for the Big Mac.”
As Peeke puts it, “Genetics may load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” She spent years researching the link between stress and fat at the National Institutes of Health, and says that chronic stress can beget an expansive waistline because it triggers ongoing production of cortisol that, among other things, spurs intense appetite that causes us to overeat; the resulting weight gain tends to settle mainly in the abdomen.
Declining levels of sex hormones cause both men and women to develop a paunch as they age. Even pear-shaped women start to lose their estrogen advantage after menopause. Remarks Savard, “When they gain weight after menopause, the tendency is to put on visceral fat... and transform from pear into apple.”
Potbellies are epidemic, and there is no quick-fix approach. Common spot remedies like crunches might tone back and abdominal muscles, but they don’t address fat stored inside the belly. For that, we need to reduce our body’s overall fat storage.
Savard advises against being tempted by crash diets; they sometimes lead to weight gain. She advises that, “Reducing your caloric intake by more than 25 percent simply triggers your metabolism to go into starvation mode, which lowers your [resting metabolic] rate.” Sticking with a sensible, whole-foods diet and moderate, daily exercise will deliver much better results.
The good news is that visceral fat, while it may be stored deep down in your belly, is often the first type of fat to burn off. This fat is metabolically active, so it actually works in our favor when we decide to get rid of it.
We’ll do better to forget how much we weigh and focus on our waistline measurement, counsels Savard. Losing just two inches there can significantly decrease the risk for a host of illnesses and diseases. “Throw away your weight scale, because health is in inches, not pounds,” she emphasizes.
Exercise and nutrition, especially eating small, well-balanced meals every three to four hours, is important, says Peeke, but just as significant is learning how to manage stress levels. “I’ve always looked at the mind in addition to the mouth and the muscle,” she says.
While there is no quick-fix approach to losing abdominal fat, thinking holistically and making real lifestyle changes can go a long way toward shedding a stubborn belly. By doing so, we’ll not only look
great at the beach this summer, but feel great, too.
Anjula Razdan is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor whose article here is an adapted excerpt from Care2.com.