All of us (and let’s be honest here) have at some point in time obsessed over our abs – mostly our concerns have been (and maybe continue to be) with shrinking it, or getting a 6 pack. Here, I’d like to cover what belly fat is and what you can do to reduce it.
Short on time? Read the Conclusion
What is belly fat?
Belly/abdominal fat is a combo of visceral and subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat is the fat you can’t see, that which surrounds your organs and acts like a cushion so they don’t get in each other’s way. It can only be measured using a CT/MRI scan.
Subcutaneous fat is the fat under your skin usually hips, thighs, belly and upper back (how many of you are pinching your bums right now?!) and sits on top of your muscles (so there’s where your 6 pack is hidden). For those of you who’ve undergone skin fold measurements, you’d probably know that the value you were given is the percentage of subcutaneous body fat you carry.
Abdominal fat is an important indicator of overall health compared with Butt and Thigh fat. It has been linked with a host of health issues including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease to name a few.
Pre-menopausal women tend to have fewer visceral fat deposits compared to men but once they hit the big M, they accumulate as much visceral fat as men thanks to lowered levels of estrogen (and you were complaining about how your period was a nuisance!).
Age also plays a role in how much visceral fat we store, as does genetics. According to research, families tended to store the same amount visceral fat. Ok so I’ve given you gender, age and genetics as your go-to excuse.
But there are lifestyle related factors we can influence (HA! You had to know this was going somewhere) –
- Physical activity. Being sedentary – regardless of if you’re lean or on the heavy side – most certainly increases your risk of increased visceral fat. Here’s a fun fact I came across, obese sumo wrestlers actually hold very little visceral fat, owing to all the physical activity they do!
- Nutrition. High sugar diets have been shown to increase visceral fat deposits in humans and animals.
- Stress. Under stress the body increases adrenaline production which in turn releases fat from its stores to fuel the body to “escape” from whatever it was that caused the stress. Whilst this “fight and flight” holds good if you were being chased by a rabid dog, it doesn’t really help with mental stressors we experience almost every day. You see, the same sequence of events happens (adrenaline-fat-energy) except that you’re not sprinting for your life. Enter the hormone cortisol, released from the adrenal glands to sweep up all this unused fatty acid and store them away. And much like that one drawer of the house we love to store unwanted items “for now”, cortisol’s drawer is the abdomen! More stress = more belly fat.
- Sleep. Lack of sleep (less than 6-7 hrs) stimulates the release of the body’s “hunger hormone” (Ghrelin, in case you were interested) increasing your appetite.
So what’s the solution to dropping the fat act? Let’s start by talking about physical activity.
Working the body’s muscles results in improved fat mobilisation i.e. removal of fat from storage and conversion into energy.
- High intensity workouts (sprints, jumps etc.) use up your glycogen (stored glucose/carbohydrate) stores first and then draw further energy from fat stores. These forms of activites improve your endurance (by strengthening your heart) and also increase fat mobilisation. They can, however, be tough on your joints and if not careful can cause injury. Once you get the hang of alignment and practise good form, you can include high intensity workouts 3 times a week. These need only be about 20 – 25 minutes a day.
- Low intensity workouts (yoga, walking) burn fat to fuel your body. The advantages of these types of activities are that they are sustainable for longer periods and are not demanding on your joints. In addition, you can do them every day.
- Weight/resistance training. Functional strength training (using several muscle groups to accomplish a movement) includes working the larger muscles and burns more energy during and after your workout (during which time energy is used to repair the muscle). As we age, our activity levels/intensity decrease causing metabolism to decrease. Increased muscle mass is important to maintain a higher metabolic rate (even while you rest) and decreased fat storage. Older ladies should incorporate strength training into their training plan 3 times a week.
A study conducted on 34 obese women aged 40 – 60 years, over a period of 16 weeks showed that the group with a calorie deficit of 500 Kcal per day and weight training twice a week lost fat around the lower abdomen, whilst the group with the same calorie deficit but no weight training lost fat from the lower body. This study not only showed how diet + weight training can help with fat loss but where the fat loss may occur.
- Stress management – Yoga, meditation, read a book….anything that you enjoy. Take time for yourself. You only have one body – nurture it. Breathe deeply when you feel like things are overwhelming.
- Sleep – Start a bedtime routine. Remove gadgets that will distract you from your bedside. I personally love to stretch before bed. It eases all the physical tension I sometimes don’t realise I’m carrying and I sleep better after.
Before we move on, I’d like to point out that regardless of what media and fad diets will have you believe, you cannot spot reduce fat i.e. attempting to reduce subcutaneous fat stores in a certain part of the body by targeting it with specific exercises. A perfect example would be performing sit-ups to shrink your belly. Abdominal work is important to include as part of your workouts to strengthen your core and minimise lower back injuries but that’s all it does really. The washboard ab definition comes when the fat sitting on top of your rectus abdominus muscle melts away exposing the muscle’s definition.
Here’s an interesting point about fat accumulation and distribution. Your genetic make up determines where and in which order fat is stored in your body. For example, some may accumulate fat in the abdomen first, then the upper body, face and neck and the the lower body. Some might start at the hips and thighs and then move on upwards. Others, a whole new sequence. Just as fat is laid down in a certain order, it is removed in the same order. So whilst we might want to work towards losing fat in a particular area, it’s not really in our control. A well rounded, whole body approach is the best way to go.
Moving on to diet. Again diet and exercise are not mutually exclusive. It’s your well known calories in vs. calories out theory.
- Whole grains over refined grains. No brainer here really – whole grains stabilise your blood sugar levels, leave you feeling full longer, have that oh-so-good fibre. Examples would be brown rice, quinoa, millet, rye..even popcorn made oil free (couscous, in case you’re wondering, is refined).
- Go crazy on fruit and veggies. Nuts, though high in unsaturated fats, are known to lower the bad LDL cholesterol levels when eaten as part as a balanced diet. In addition, they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E (and are awesome when you’re craving “fatty” food).
- Don’t go crazy on cheese, butter, fatty meats, fried food etc. Depending on what quantity they’re eaten in (and trust you me, it’s very easy to indulge in fats due to the texture, aroma and mouthfeel of these energy-dense foods), they can spike your energy intake during a meal and are quite rich in saturated fats.
- Eliminate transfats and fast food. Transfats are found in margarine, cookies, pastries, fried and convenience foods. If you must pop into your local fast food joint, familiarise yourself with the menu beforehand so you know what’s offered and what your best meal choice would be.
- Eliminate/reduce processed foods e.g. Oils, deli meats, cream cheese spreads, even packaged/bottled salad dressings. These foods interfere with the normal signalling within the body leaving you feeling hungrier, which leads to overeating and consequently depression. In addition, they tend to be high in salt causing increased water retention and that bloated feeling.
- Indulge in alcohol (a high caloric beverage) once in a while – don’t make 3 beers a routine. One 2013 study review from Denmark suggested that intake of beer is associated with abdominal obesity, while a German study found that lifetime consumption of alcohol is positively related to abdominal fat in 160,000 women.
- Read food and drink labels – watch out for added sugars (which equal added calories) such as dextrose, glucose, maltose, high fructose corn syrup. Many low fat commercial foods have a lot of “extras” added to make them palatable. If the ingredients list is longer than your grocery list, chances are you probably aren’t familiar with most of what’s stated and are better off going for the “full fat” option.
- Drink unsweetened tea (green tea has been known to aid in fat loss) and water instead of soda. Artificially sweetened soda has been shown to increase waist size, BMI and total fat percentage when compared with normal soda.
How much fat you carry is part determined by your genes but is also influenced by lifestyle.
There is no quick fix, magic diet out there to aid you in fat loss. It all comes down to how active you are and what you feed your body. This holds good for all body types. Other factors that play an important role are sleep and how well you manage stress.
As part of your physical activity, include low intensity activities (walking, cycling, swimming, yoga etc) daily, high intensity workouts 3 times a week and weight training 2-3 times a week.
I’d like to mention that this article is not to scare you away from fats nor am I an anti-fat activist, rather it is to bring to your attention how a balanced lifestyle (activity and diet) can leave you feeling like a new person. Once you find this balance, everything else happening under your skin will fall in place (or melt away as in this case).
Making lifestyle and diet changes are by no means easy especially if you’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as your can remember, but with guidance and support, and incorporating habits one at a time at your own pace you can make those big changes and be successful at keeping them up. These changes become your new lifestyle – your new way of doing things.
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