Excess belly fat may be affecting your health and fitness. Let’s choose to lose it — here’s how!

As the overfat pandemic has overtaken the world — sweeping along with it even athletes and those who are very active — some new trends have developed over the last decade or so that are even more alarming and have contributed to this problem.

Consider these five factors:

  • A new study in the Journal of American Medical Association (March 2017) revealed that the percent of U.S. overfat adults who have tried slimming down decreased from 56 to 49 percent between 1991 and 2012. Lack of success may be the most common reason, with low-fat/low-calorie diets still popular despite the long-term poor results.
  • Another study in the journal Medical Care (February 2013) showed that U.S. primary care doctors reduced their weight counseling and clinical diagnosis of overweight and obesity between 1996 and 2008 from 7.8 to 6.2 percent. The reasons for this also are most likely due to lack of success.
  • In a systematic review of published clinical trials in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism (April 2015), complementary and alternative therapies for the treatment of overfatness, including herbal supplements, acupuncture and others had a negligible clinical benefit, barely surpassing that of the placebo.
  • In the U.S., girls have slightly edged out boys in the overfat category. This may be due to increased belly fat. While the U.S. ushered in the overfat pandemic decades ago, this new gender trend is a rarity for a developed country but not uncommon elsewhere in the world in both children and adults. Cultural reasons are probably at play.
  • While all these issues are of serious concern, even more significant is that excess belly fat — ab fat — is now pushing the pandemic to new heights.

Of course, the most successful long-term approach to reducing excess body fat is to do it yourself, using food macronutrient manipulation to re-set your metabolism. In essence, become a better fat-burner.

Ab Fat

Excess abdominal or “belly” fat is of special concern because, more than any other area of over-accumulation of body fat, this problem can impair both health and fitness most. In particular, it can adversely affect the metabolism, the cardiovascular system, and even increase the risk of cancer. In sports, it can reduce movement economy for running and other activities, disturb gait, and increase the amount of energy needed to complete a competitive event.

Despite becoming socially acceptable, excess ab fat is not sexy just because it’s common and difficult to remedy — just like smoking cigarettes is not sexy.

Measuring ab fat can’t be done on the scale because fat doesn’t weigh as much as lean muscle, for example, but it takes up more room. This makes measuring it quite simple.

Measuring Overfat

While many people have excess fat deposits in various body areas, it turns out that waist size is a great measure of being generally overfat. Over the years, various forms of waist measurements have been used, but the current one is the waist-to-height ratio (WHtR). This is accurate for everyone in the world. While it doesn’t indicate percentage of body fat, which has no consensus of normal cutoffs, a WHtR of .50 and above measured at the level of the belly button indicates being overfat, defined as an excess amount of body fat to impair health. For example:

A person with a 30” waist and height of 62”: WHtR = .48

A person with a 35” waist and height of 70”: WHtR = .50

The key message is simple: The waist measure should be less than half the height.

Choose to Lose

Most of us have struggled with ab fat, but winning the battle has a single focus — insulin. This hormone, which rises with the amount of carbohydrate we consume, converts half these carbs to fat, and prevents us from burning as much stored fat for energy. Insulin also can move fat stores from other areas in the body into the belly for storage.

The worst insulin-spiking offender is junk-food carbohydrates. This includes most carbs in our food supply.

Choosing to lose excess ab fat in particular means avoiding all refined carbohydrates and finding the amount of natural carbs your body can tolerate. If you need help, the Two-Week Test is a great place to start.

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • John Hardcastle says:

    Hi Phil just one simple question for you in relation to food type intake. If you’re doing 3+ hours of intense biking it remains really difficult to do so without eating some carbohydrate that is fast acting ; leastways it is for every club cyclist I have spoken to here in the UK. I’ve read much of your advice and have bought your book and also the ketogenic stuff written by Steve Phinney and Jeff Volek. I have experimented with less than 50g per day total carbs. This was fine for 20 weeks and then I went cycle touring for three days through some hilly parts of Wales and found that by the end of day two I was simply unable to continue. It was only my irate wife, who “forced” me to eat a piece of fruitcake and some milk, that sorted things out. It seems most of the very low carb dietary advice is aimed at people who fundamentally are sedentary. So what do you recommend instead of energy bars, rice cakes, jam sandwiches or any other sugar source for those of us who are active, not overweight, but who don’t want to be vulnerable to the pernicious effects of insulin? Kind regards John

    • John:

      Workout nutrition is a whole different animal than regular nutrition. So during a long intense workout, just about anything that doesn’t upset your digestion can be (but isn’t NECESSARILY) fair game as long as you start after you’re fully warmed-up (30 minutes into the workout).

  • Jeff Pearson says:

    Hi,
    I enjoy your articles but I think you need to clarify belly fat vs. abdominal fat. E.g. subcutaneous vs. visceral. The opening sentence references belly fat but I’m assuming your intent was to draw attention to the dangers of abdominal/visceral fat. Apologies if I’m wrong.

    Also, I’ve been ketogenic for over two years and I’m also a long distance runner. I have no energy issues with running 10 to 20 mile training runs, without eating carbs, as long as I’m keeping my heart rate around my MAF. The muscles and liver contain enough glycogen to get me through these runs.
    Thanks,
    JP

    • Mike Blain says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Just out of interest, if you are ketogenic, why would you be relying on glycogen?
      Mike

      • Jeff Pearson says:

        Hi Mike,
        Even though I’m in a ketogenic state my body still utilizes glycogen when I’m running. Even when I’m at MAF I’m burning glycogen albeit at a lower percentage then when in an anaerobic state. Hope that helps.

  • Phil Hodge says:

    John,

    Like Jeff I do a considerable amount of long distance running, generally in the mountains, and at varying degrees of intensity.
    I have used a low carb approach for the last few years, with considerable success. While MAF paced exercise was OK, I found that any higher paces or 5-6 hour training runs in the hills had me struggling to keep up with my training partners.
    Initially I didn’t tell my running partners that I wasn’t eating before or during these runs and just ‘sucked-up’ the weakness I was feeling, but over time (months) the transition was made, and I could run with the others without needing food.
    Interestingly I have spoken to other endurance runners who have been doing the same thing, but not through a particular ‘low carb’ approach, just because it worked for them – ironic that they had figured out the benefit of this approach purely through experience – I should add that these are fell/mountain runners, who are less influenced by the nutrition marketing companies than there road running contemporaries – still true in spite of this science being around for a few years.
    As Ivan has said elsewhere, the big benefit comes when racing and how your body responds to even a little carbs as there isn’t the need to eat the large quantities that other non fat adapted athletes are having to consume.
    Barry Murray, one of the leader Irish Endurance Sports nutritionists, made a comment a number of years ago that stuck with me and experience has proved true – that you cannot rush these adaptions – the process of breaking down food and utilizing it in your body is not simple and takes the body quite a while to adapt – think a couple of years, not months, but the benefits are definitely worth the wait.

  • Josh says:

    This probabky isn’t the best place for this question but The previous two comments sparked a query I have.

    I’ve done the two week test and have slowly introduced carbs again. All is going good and I now have a much better understanding of my tolerance. What I don’t understand is what do I eat during a long run/cycle to keep my energy up? I have noticed I can now run 15-20km without needing any food now as if at MAF speed, but what about for 20km plus? I plan on running a 50miler later in the year and am confused as to what i should try eating for this and how often? The usual rule I have followed has been approx 250 calories an hour after the first hour but that is carb and sugar heavy?

    Thanks for any advice

    Josh

    • Josh: When the aerobic system is fully warmed up (30-45 min after the onset of exercise) it’s just fine to include some simple sugars. It’ll have the effect of maintaining your blood sugar levels rather than tamping down on your fat-burnimg

      • josh says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        Could you explain a little more about what these simple sugars might be? Should I stay away from things like gels and shots? Should I also follow the same calorie intake per hour or can I expect to reduce due to improved fat burning? Thanks very much.

        If there is an article on the site or more detailed information on this please feel free to just point me in the right direction. I couldn’t find it when looking.

        Josh

        • Josh:

          Gels and the such are just fine, as long as you only start ingesting them once you’ve been exercising for 30-45 minutes. As you suppose, what you’re going to find as you become more fat-adapted is that you need less and less. So, without underfueling your body, make an effort to see how much you can realistically cut back on exercise sugar intake as months go by.

          We haven’t discussed this in a dedicated article yet (I think) but I’ll make a note of your question in order to address it.

  • Martin says:

    >> Choosing to lose excess ab fat in particular means avoiding all refined carbohydrates and finding the amount of natural carbs your body can tolerate.

    Like most other tips on this site, this one is obviously targeted at folks who do eat high carbs.

    And what about those of us who have followed a low carb/ketogenic diet for… year now? What use is this advice for us?

    • Martin:

      Thanks for your comment.

      It’s no use at all.

      You’ve walked down the particular path laid out by this article already (by and large).

      That said, there are many other strategies that enable one to lose abdominal fat, such as reducing lifestyle stresses, regulating your sleep cycles, eliminating chemicals, toxins, and molds from households, etc — All chronic stress eventually increases abdominal fat due to the fact that the chronic hormonal mixture resulting from chronic stress is conducive to increases in body fat. So, while avoiding all refined carbs is perhaps the crucial centerpiece of that puzzle, it is ultimately one piece of many that have to snap into place.

      (Those “pieces” are explored by many other articles on this site).

  • PATRICIA MACIVER says:

    So with this calculation I am 5’1″ waist 39 I am WAY OVER RIGHT!

  • Andrew Hunter says:

    I grasp carbohydrates leading to organ fat leading to hyperinsulinemia leading to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes (T2D). But how come there are skinny people with T2D? They don’t seem to fit the general picture and wonder if there is something else going on. What might be happening with these people?

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