Are you frustrated with stubborn belly fat, but unsure just where to begin? Here’s how to lose centimetres, gain confidence and benefit your health. Let’s get started!
Spare tyre, love handles, muffin top… call it what you like, it seems to be the area of the body that we’d all like to tone up. Excess belly fat doesn’t just look unsightly and feel uncomfortable — it’s more dangerous to your health than the fat around your hips and thighs.
Two kinds of fat surround your mid-section, not just one like other areas of your body. Subcutaneous fat (which means ‘under the skin’) is ‘regular’ fat — the kind you can pinch. The other kind, called visceral fat, surrounds the vital organs in your stomach area. This type of fat pushes the stomach outwards and leads to a pot belly — and it’s been linked to a variety of health risks like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers.
Why is it that some of us tend to gain weight around our tummy while others keep it off? Unfortunately, there is no single answer. Eating too much and not moving enough are the usual culprits, but there are other factors also at play, such as hormones, genes and even stress.
Testosterone predisposes men to accumulate fat around their abdomen, while the female hormone oestrogen causes women to store fat over time around their hips, bottom and thighs.
When you’re exposed to chronic stress, your body is literally bathed in a flood of the stress hormone called cortisol. Excess amounts of cortisol cause fat to be stored centrally around the organs. A study found that even women of a healthy weight are more prone to belly fat if they are highly stressed.
The main symptoms of insulin resistance are extra weight around the midriff and difficulty losing weight. When insulin levels are high, your body finds fat easier to store and harder to burn. Left unchecked, insulin resistance can worsen and may eventually progress into type 2 diabetes.
Everyone is genetically programmed to store fat in differing proportions around the body. Generally, pear-shaped people store more subcutaneous fat in their lower body, whereas the apple-shaped person stores largely visceral abdominal fat.
Women’s lower oestrogen levels during and after menopause can lead them to store weight around their belly as men do, gaining visceral fat and also increasing their risk of heart disease.
It’s not only high in kilojoules — when you drink, your liver is too busy burning off the alcohol to burn off the fat. Alcohol can also affect the hormones that regulate satiety, causing you to overeat. The result of all this: waist gain.
While you may not be gaining weight around your tummy, 90 per cent of people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report uncomfortable bloating, often caused by diet.
Seven reasons to whittle your waist
1. Improve your sleep
Researchers have found strong evidence that belly fat is linked to sleep apnoea, where the walls of the throat relax during sleep and interrupt normal breathing, robbing people of restful sleep. A big stomach is also known to be a trigger for loud snoring.
2. Enjoy a longer life
That paunch can double your chances of dying prematurely from certain lifestyle diseases, compared with people who are heavier but have a more even fat distribution across their bodies. Researchers have found belly fat is a sign of lower muscle mass, something that is strongly associated with metabolic disorders and early death.
3. Lower your risk of diabetes
If you become overweight you’ll increase your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, but the worst place to store fat is around the belly. Check your waist circumference. Men who measure more than 102cm around the middle are five times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than men with a smaller waistline, while women who measure more than 88cm are three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, according to Public Health England.
4. For your heart’s sake
A recent study confirmed that the spare tyre around your middle is a heart disease risk factor. Visceral fat surrounding organs in the stomach is also directly linked with higher total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
5. For healthy blood pressure
Even if you’re otherwise lean and healthy, excess belly fat can cause your blood pressure to rise, warn researchers at the renowned Mayo Clinic in the United States. They found that when weight gain showed up in the stomach area, there was a much sharper rise in blood pressure.
6. Lower your risk of breast cancer
Expanding waistbands between the ages of 20 and 60 may increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women, a UK study has found.
7. Spice up your sex life
Australian researchers cited belly fat as one of the most common causes of erectile dysfunction in men. Being overweight also lowers levels of the male hormone testosterone, which can further affect a man’s sexual performance.
Are you at risk?
Measuring your waist circumference is a better estimate of visceral fat and your risk of health problems than your weight or BMI.
>94cm = increased risk
>102cm = high risk
>80cm = increased risk
>88cm = high risk
How to lose belly fat… for good!
Kick off the New Year in good health with our practical tips to trim your tum and shift belly fat.
Find yourself an ‘accountability buddy’
People who tell others what they’re aiming to achieve are more likely to reach their goal. Saying it aloud means being accountable. Do you know anyone on a similar journey, so you can support each other? Ask a friend to be your exercise buddy, or a family member to help with meal prep. And join our HFG Kick-start Weight-loss Challenge Facebook group!
Find your why
New Year, new you? Research shows that 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, so work out why weight loss is important to you. This will give you the incentive to keep going. Remember, doing the small things consistently leads to bigger successes, because making a change requires us to do something repeatedly until it becomes a new habit.
Cut down on refined carbs
Highly processed foods like white bread, biscuits, chips and sweets cause rapid increases in your blood glucose levels, which trigger a big insulin response. The result is your body stores that excess glucose as body fat if you aren’t doing enough exercise to burn it off. Whole grains and slow-release carbs, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice, are healthier alternatives.
Being active not only helps you lose centimetres from your waist, it also keeps your heart and bones strong and improves your insulin sensitivity (reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes). Physical activity kicks in feel-good endorphins, and it can even make you smarter!
If time poor, try a 15 to 20-minute high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session, or put your trainers on and start walking — everywhere. If you’re desk bound, then get up and move around the room every half an hour.
Keep calm and carry on
Under stress, your body releases cortisol, which stimulates your appetite, slows metabolism and encourages fat to linger inside your abdomen. Yoga meditation breathing has been shown to help people manage stress. Or try an exercise such as swimming laps to release those feel-good hormones.
Eat protein at every meal
Protein keeps you full for longer, your body expends energy to burn it, and it keeps muscles healthy. The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism and the more kilojoules you’ll burn each day. We lose 10 per cent of our muscle mass each decade after the age of 30, which means our metabolism slows down unless we balance our food with exercise.
Restrict starchy carbs to lunch
You’ll have more time to digest and use them as energy rather than storing them as fat, which happens when you eat close to bedtime. Starchy carbs include wholegrain bread, couscous, pasta, rice and potatoes. At dinnertime, get creative with veg, and keep carbs to one-quarter of your plate.
Drop meal sizes during the day
You know the saying: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper, yet most of us do it the other way around. Getting a good breakfast with enough protein will kick-start your metabolism and keep you going until lunchtime — so you’re less likely to snack on high-sugar, high-fat foods mid-morning.
Celebrate quiet victories
When you cut back on kilojoules, your body usually burns visceral fat first. Add exercise to the mix, and you’ll move further along the path of losing more of that fat. So, even if the number on the scales doesn’t shift, you’ll be losing centimetres from your waist, which is a huge win for your health!