Americans spend countless hours and billions of dollars trying anything and everything to attain a flat stomach.
What is Belly Fat?
There are three different types of fat:
- Subcutaneous fat is fat that can accumulate just underneath the skin. It is looser fat that lets you “pinch an inch” or gives you those “love handles”.
- Intramuscular fat within the skeletal muscles
- Visceral fat is fat that is packed between your abdominal organs (stomach, liver, kidneys, etc). This is intra- abdominal or Belly FAT
Visceral fat affects the abdominal area; it causes a person to have a thicker waistline or “pot belly” Having too much fat is always bad, but visceral fat far worse than subcutaneous fat for serious health problems – including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even some cancers such as breast and colon cancer. It’s deep inside, around the vital organs (heart, lungs, digestive tract, liver, etc.) in the chest, abdomen and pelvis. In fact, it’s so deep inside that you can’t notice it from the outside. Many people are sub-conscious about the fat they can see (subcutaneous fat) – but actually it is the hidden fat – the visceral fat – that does more harm.
We all need SOME visceral fat. It provides necessary cushioning around organs. When a body becomes overweight/obese, it runs out of safe places to store fat and begins storing it in and around the organs.
Fatty liver disease was, until recently, very rare in non-alcoholics. Now it is common. With obesity increasing, fat deposits become so full that the fat is deposited into the organs like the liver, and around the heart as well. Researchers discovered that the genes active in a person’s belly fat are significantly different from those in his or her thigh fat, a finding that could shift the way we approach unwanted belly fat—from banishing it to relocating it.
At one time it was thought that fat cells were simply inert storage depots for surplus calories. Studies have established that fat cells can secrete certain hormones and other substances much like other organs in the body. The hormone leptin, which controls appetite, and adiponectin, which makes the body more sensitive to insulin and controls blood sugar levels. Fat is an ACTIVE ORGAN that sends chemical signals to other parts of the body. Study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research reported on the discovery of 20 new hormones and other substances not previously known to be secreted into the blood by human fat cells. There are 80 different proteins produced by fat cells. This study also verified that fat secretes dozens of hormones and chemical messengers – some of these are pro-inflammatory chemical messengers.
Belly fat can be thought of as an endocrine organ – an organ that secretes chemicals into the bloodstream that elicit significant changes in the activity of other organs. Belly fat cells produce and secrete several types of immune system stimulants called cytokines. These molecules circulate around the body revving up certain cells of immunity that are in charge of inflammation. This can encourage the growth of arterial plaque.
The amount of fat in your cells is determined not just by how much fat enters them, but also by how much fat leaves them. When the amount entering and the amount leaving over a period of time are equal, fat cells don’t enlarge. They properly perform their job of storing fat temporarily as you eat and then releasing it between meals so that you don’t feel hungry before your next meal. Fat cells are not intrinsically evil, they serve a very useful purpose. They allow us to do important tasks such as go to work, exercise, run errands, etc. instead of having to eat all the time to maintain energy levels; but when insulin levels stay high by eating all the time or eating very high glycemic foods, our fat cells keep fat locked up in the cells and won’t release it.
When insulin level is high, fat cells are locked in the fat-storing mode. If the insulin is kept low, the switch is turned off and fat can be released for use by the body. The trick is to keep insulin levels LOW!! One of the other tasks insulin performs is the regulation of blood sugar. As more glucose (food/drinks) enters the blood, more insulin is required to control it. Carbohydrates cause insulin to spike higher than either fats or protein. Refined carbs, or rapidly digested carbs, cause the insulin to spike even higher!
- High carbohydrate intake = high insulin release
- High refined carbohydrate intake = very high insulin release
- Higher Insulin release = higher fat storage
So, how much is TOO MUCH?? Get a measuring tape, wrap it around the waist, just above your hipbone and measure your girth. Do it while standing up. For best health, waist size should be:
- Less than 35” for women
- Less than 40” for men
Having a pear shape with fatter hips and thighs is considered safer than apple shape with a wider waistline. Many women notice an increase in belly fat as they get older, even if they aren’t gaining weight. This is most likely due to a decreasing level of estrogen, which appears to influence where fat is distributed in the body.
Getting Rid Of Belly Fat
There is no magic diet for belly fat. When you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually goes first. So what CAN help?
- FIBER: Research shows that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day, without any other diet changes, build up less visceral fat over time than others. Another study from Penn State: (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008) 50 men and women, all obese and had metabolic syndrome (combination of abdominal obesity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure, high triglycerides). For the diet: they all cut calories. ½ of the participants were told to be sure that all their grains were whole grains such as oatmeal, whole-grain cereal, brown rice and barley. The other ½ were instructed to choose only refined grains, such as white bread, white pasta and other foods made with white flour. After 12 weeks, both groups lost about the same amount of weight –an average of 11 pounds (calories count!!). The whole-grain group lost more belly fat and also reduced their CRP by 38% (measures inflammation).
- Fiber itself has NO calories, yet it helps to fill you up!
- SLOWS the absorption of food by the body
- Stabilizes blood sugar
- Helps keep appetite satisfied longer
- Helps body absorb LESS fat and cholesterol from foods
- Helps maintain gut/immune health
- Eliminate Sugary Drinks: Soda, juice, sweetened tea, “energy drinks,” Starbucks, etc. Sugar increases belly fat and fiber reduces it so when you juice fruit you remove the fiber, leaving pure sugar! The average American eats 156 pounds of added sugar each year! The sweet tastes can change the way we perceive food, think about food, and crave food and can even enhance our appetite and influence insulin secretion – turning on an “overeating” response.
- Stress: Cortisol is the major hormone of stress. It promotes overeating, fat storage, and belly fat. As belly fat grows, so does blood levels of cortisol, which only perpetuates stress and makes it worse. Belly fat elevates cortisol – triggers a more voracious appetite, craving for sugar and fat, and weight gain. This vicious cycle is hard to break – must pay attention to food intake, exercise AND stress levels.
- Mindful Eating: Eat mindfully. SLOW down. It takes approximately 15-20 minutes for the signal of fullness to reach the brain. Portion control can go out the window in that time. Take small bites, chew 15-20 time. Savor the food as you chew. Swallow before taking the next bite. Pause between bites, assess your hunger level