What is belly fat?
When we talk of belly fat we’re referring to that extra weight that sits around our middle. This fat is typically made up of two types – firstly, there’s the fat that lies just under the skin, the subcutaneous fat – this makes up about 90% and it's the fat you can pinch with your fingers. The second type is called visceral or intra-abdominal fat and makes up the remaining 10%. It’s this fat, which lies deep in the abdomen and accumulates around key organs like the liver, pancreas and intestines, that may be most problematic.
Why is extra belly fat a problem?
Although we may affectionately refer to our extra inches as love-handles or describe ourselves as cuddly, carrying too much abdominal weight does have a dark side. Visceral fat although small in proportion to other body fat is ‘active’, which means it produces messengers that influence how the body functions. These messengers include pro-inflammatory cytokines and compounds which influence how hormones like insulin work.
What this means is that when visceral fat starts to accumulate it may become a risk to our health, increasing our chances of developing conditions such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
How does belly fat accumulate?
We’re still learning about the exact mechanisms behind how we accumulate stomach fat, especially visceral fat, but we do know that stress and the hormone cortisol plays an important role, regardless of our age or life stage. In addition to this, a poor diet which is high in fast-releasing carbs and low in protein, combined with alcohol consumption, a lack of exercise and disturbed sleep will all influence our girth.
Another factor is our genetic make-up, researchers believe our genes influence how effectively we burn energy, our behaviour and our risk of developing obesity and associated diseases.
How do I know if my belly fat is a problem?
An easy way to assess if there may be a problem is to measure your waist. Experts suggest that for women a waist measurement more than 80cm and for men more than 94cm suggests there may be an issue. These guidelines are adjusted for ethnicity with South Asian, Chinese and Japanese men recommended to have a waist circumference no more than 90cm. If your measurements exceed these guidelines and you are concerned, refer to your GP for further guidance.
Why is belly fat so hard to shift?
Belly fat is tricky to shift because there are so many factors influencing it. For example, where you gain fat will be influenced by your genes, your age and even your weight at birth, with smaller babies gaining more belly fat later in life. If you’re female and child-free then you’re less likely to develop high levels of visceral fat than if you are a mum.
Will my hormones influence how much belly fat I have?
During our reproductive life women have less visceral fat than men, but this changes as oestrogen levels fall during midlife and at the menopause. At this stage, testosterone starts to play a more significant role in where women lay down fat, favouring the upper body rather than the hips and thighs, with our proportion of fat to body weight also increasing.
Menopause is not the only time when hormones play an influential role in fat storage. Women diagnosed with the condition PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) may also be prone to increased intra-abdominal fat storage.
10 ways to lose belly fat healthily
The good news is making changes to your activity levels, diet and lifestyle can be effective strategies for slimming that stomach.
1. Be active
Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week – examples include brisk walking. A combination of aerobic and strength training is the most effective plan for trimming stubborn belly fat. Once you’ve reached your goals don’t give up – a study suggests that as little as two 40-minute sessions per week can help you maintain a slimmer stomach.
2. Reduce your carbs
Proven to be more useful than a low-fat diet, reducing your carb intake has to be a first-line strategy for getting your waist in order. With this in mind, reducing your intake of high GI foods in preference for low GI (wholegrain) carbs will keep you fuller for longer and help you meet your waist-whittling goals.
3. Fill up on fibre
It may feature low on your list of favourite dietary inclusions but fibrous foods should be top of your list for amazing health benefits. The soluble variety, found in plant foods like flaxseeds and avocado, are especially useful for keeping your appetite in check, your gut in good health and for reducing abdominal fat.
4. Pack in the protein
Research tells us that people who eat more protein have lower visceral fat levels. Aim to include lean sources of protein in each meal and snack such as seafood, lean meats, eggs, dairy, beans and pulses.
5. Eat calcium and vitamin D-rich foods
Studies suggest calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients we typically associate with bone health, may be useful in our mission to reduce visceral adiposity. Researchers think these nutrients play an important role in how the body metabolises fat. Look to include dairy or fortified plant-based alternatives, canned oily fish with bones and egg yolks.
6. Drink alcohol moderately
When it comes to alcohol it’s not just the frequency of consumption you need to consider. Interesting research suggests the pattern of our drinking plays an important role. Findings indicate that those who save their alcohol intake until the weekend and have four or more drinks in one sitting may be at greater risk of visceral fat accumulation than those who have one small glass a day.
7. Choose an eating ‘window’
What you eat is not the only way to successfully beat that belly, choosing when you eat may also be effective. Intermittent fasting involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting. Typically, fasters select an eating ‘window’, a time period of the day within which they eat all meals and snacks. This pattern of eating may have other benefits such as improving hunger signalling and insulin sensitivity. The key to success is to select a time period that suits your lifestyle, but avoid eating too late in the evening because this can disrupt sleep.
8. Manage stress
The stress hormone cortisol increases belly fat storage especially in women, so moderating stress is key to successfully managing your waistline. What works for you will be personal to you, so check out a variety of methods such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga and physical exercise.
9. Get sound sleep
10. Quit smoking
If you are considering a significant change in diet, please consult your GP to ensure you can do so without risk to health.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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