First—and it’s at the basis of everything related to weight loss—this is a journey best measured in months and years, not weeks or days. As I often tell my clients with weight loss goals, it’s okay to think big (“I want to lose 50 pounds”) if you also think long term. The trick is to set short-term SMART goals that add up to that long-term one.
That said, the topic of this blog is belly fat, its health effects and suggested counter strategies. Belly fat, or visceral fat stored around the abdomen and internal organs, is linked to increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and the suite of obesity-related conditions known as “metabolic syndrome.” (Here’s a short clip that further describes visceral fat; caution for gross factor). Therefore, a person with an “apple” shape from belly fat faces greater health risks than someone with a “pear” shape, where fat is stored in the hips, thighs, and buttocks.
Genetics plays a strong role in how our bodies preferentially store fat. Indeed, we store fat where we are genetically predisposed to deposit it, and we add to fat stores through what we eat and how our bodies use those calories. Although exercise cannot directly target certain areas for fat reduction, strength training CAN help reduce belly fat even when overall body weight holds steady (Special Report, Supplement to Mayo Clinic Health Letter, “Weight loss, new understandings, better results,” November 2015). So while it is nearly impossible to turn an apple body into a pear or some other shape, it is possible to create a slimmer apple (or pear). Other good news: when we lose weight, belly fat tends to be lost at a rate higher than fat elsewhere in the body.
Which brings us back to exercise. Continuing to exercise after losing weight helps prevent you from regaining belly fat. Let that sink in, because it’s important and tends to be one of the habits of people who have lost a lot of weight and kept it off. Diet may be more important initially, but it really is the combo of diet and exercise (reducing caloric intake and increasing physical activity) that works best to reduce that tire around the middle and keep it off. Here’s some other good ideas:
- Avoid added sugar, especially fructose-heavy sugars in soft drinks, cereals, convenience foods, etc. Excess fructose overwhelms the body’s ability to use it as energy; those extra calories get stored as, guess what, fat!
- Avoid excess alcohol. When you drink alcohol, the liver burns alcohol instead of fat. Alcohol calories are also easy to overdo. A typical beer has 150 calories – so drinking several in one sitting can lead to serious calorie overload. As with fructose, the liver turns more than it can burn into visceral fat.
- Eat more fiber. Although fiber is not magical for its fat-burning properties, it helps you feel full without adding a lot of extra calories to your diet. A 2001 review of published studies found that adding 14 grams of fiber daily prompted a 10% decrease in calorie intake and a weight loss of 4.5 lbs over 4 months. (). To get more fiber, eat more plant foods like vegetables and fruit; legumes are also a good source, as are whole grains like oats.
- Move more. Surprise! Shoot for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, more if you want to lose weight. Brisk walking is great. Work up to 30 minutes a day gradually. Be consistent and spread it out over the week. Perhaps even more important, find ways to simply move more as part of your life: park farther away, take the stairs, get off that chair every hour, pace during phone calls and commercials, etc.
- Train with weights or your own body weight. Cardio alone will not target stubborn fat deposits. Muscle tissue burns calories; fat tissue stores them. A comprehensive strength-training program helps build more lean muscle mass, which increases your basal metabolic rate so you burn more fat even at rest. Lift weights or do other forms of resistance training at least twice a week. You have to be consistent to see real results.
That’s it for now. The next installment of “Eschewing the Fat” will address metabolism and aging. ‘Til then,
–Keep movin’, Jen