Health & Wellness

Battling Belly Fat

05.18.13 Battling Belly Fat

Sure belly fat is soft and squishy – traits that sound nice when you’re talking about your new feather pillow – and perhaps even endearing with nick-names such as “pot-belly”, “love handles” and “muffin top”.  But once it accumulates to where your middle starts resembling an apple rather than a pear (larger girth around the hips), it’s a burden on your health.  Registered Dietitian Andrea Q. Vintro of Nutrition Logic tells us what we need to know about battling a bulging belly.

What is belly fat?

Also known as central or abdominal obesity, and visceral fat, these terms all reference the accumulation of body fat surrounding organs in the abdominal cavity, including the liver, intestines, stomach and kidneys.  By simply measuring the circumference of the waist (top of the hip bone through the navel), you can assess your risk for hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.  For women, if it’s greater than 35 inches, you’re at risk – for men it’s over 40 inches. Independent of the amount of body fat under the skin (subcutaneous fat), researchers now know that a disproportionate distribution of fat around the abdominal area is not only strongly correlated to chronic diseases (including cancer), but also a stronger predictor than body weight and BMI alone.

What’s happening?

Not just a benign energy storage depot as once thought, visceral fat cells actually work together as an “organ”, secreting hormones and other factors that affect metabolism.  Researchers believe an abnormal increase in size of the fat cells stimulate an inflammatory response, triggering organ malfunction resulting in problems with glucose (sugar) and fat regulation.  Essentially, these cells are not genetically programmed to store large amounts of fat, and scientists and nutritionists believe our poor diet and lack of exercise contribute to this overload.

It’s true that advancing age (especially in women) and genetics play a strong role in the girth of your waist, but exercise and eating right can do wonders.

7 ways to fight belly fat 

Keep total body fat down (aka “lose weight”)
Unfortunately you can’t tell your body to lose fat in certain areas. Your genes play more of a role in where fat is stored and what comes off first with weight loss.  The good news is that when body fat is lost, it’s lost in ALL areas, including the belly fat.  Maintain a healthy weight by eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, less processed foods and controlling portion sizes.

Reduce stress
Research shows a strong correlation between high cortisol levels and abdominal fat.  Cortisol is a hormone released in times of stress and affects glucose metabolism and the immune system.  Try meditation or yoga classes to learn stress-reduction techniques.  No time for a class?  Pencil in 30 minutes of quite time (sipping tea, deep breathing, walking in the woods) daily, but only if it doesn’t cut into your sleep time.  Getting enough sleep is key to maintaining healthy cortisol levels.

Choose whole foods containing complex carbohydrates rather than refined grains and sugar.
Carbohydrates are essential for survival, but not all foods containing carbohydrates are created equal.  Eating a diet high in refined grains and sugars is positively correlated with increases in waist circumference.  Moreover, foods high in added sugars contain more fructose.  High amounts found in the typical “American diet” more often end up as abdominal fat rather than being used for energy.  This is because fructose is primarily metabolized by the liver which is unaccustomed to high concentrations and absorption speed observed with diets high in sugar and refined grains.   Replace refined grain and sugar foods with complex carbs coming from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and beans and legumes.

Drink in moderation
Scientists are not sure why, but higher consumption of alcohol tends to result more belly fat.  Most think the breakdown of alcohol in the liver displaces fat metabolism, causing it to accumulate nearby.  The high calorie foods typically consumed with drinks (think buffalo wings and fried calamari), and the inhibition that comes with even a small amount of intoxication, don’t help either. What’s the limit?  One glass (4 oz wine, 12 oz beer, 1 oz liquor) is considered moderate.  Already have a belly?  Cut back more.  You may think, “Which drink should I you have if I want to get rid of belly fat: wine, beer and cocktails?”  The answer is that  all of these choices contain about the same alcohol level, but cocktails may have the most calories. Wine will have the least.

Move more
Including exercise in your daily routine is more potent than diet alone when trying to avoid the spare-tire affect.  Getting your heart rate up regularly is also the most effective behavior to KEEP it off.  By increasing the amount of energy you burn, exercise helps keep the metabolism running efficiently by improving the function of insulin and other diet-related hormones, and reducing fat cell size.  Just 50 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 3-times each week is needed, and a recent study confirmed that strength training can be effective as well.  Oh, and as a side note, just say “No!” to escalators.

Include more anti inflammatory foods
Hormones secreted from abdominal fat trigger an inflammatory response throughout the entire body. We know this is one source contributing to the underlying inflammation of most metabolic chronic diseases inducing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Foods high in anti-inflammatory properties not only cool things down, but also fight the fat build-up.  Choose intensely-colored vegetables and fruits (think berries, spinach and bell peppers), fatty fish like salmon or sardines, nuts, seeds and beans, and be generous with herbs and spices, which are some of the most potent anti-inflammatory foods available.

Choose healthier fats
When we replace bad fats (saturated and trans-fats found in processed and animal foods) and refined carbohydrates with monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), our abdominal fat shrinks.  Our bodies need these healthy fats to function properly, indicated by a reduction of inflammatory agents and positive body fat distribution.  Incorporate healthy fats in most meals, but be also be aware that overdoing it can lead to fat gain.  Foods high in MUFAs include olives, olive and canola oil, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados.

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