Gut Check, Part 2: Belly fat is common, but it should not be stylish

By April 30, 2015 November 8th, 2017 Lifestyle & Stress, Nutrition

(Missed Part I? See “Why Focusing on Your Core Is Wrong.”)

Call it a beer belly, gut, love handles, or just a bulging waist. Too much stored fat is worse than it looks. Excess abdominal belly fat in particular is a sign of reduced health and lowered fitness. Sadly, the problem has become so common that many young people think it’s fashionable. But it’s not.

Clinically, a high amount of abdominal fat is called central obesity. But one need not be obese—with a worldwide overfat epidemic, no one is exempt from this dilemma, including athletes.

Many people measure body fat with calipers, water weighing, and the latest modern high-tech methods that estimate percent body fat. All are still estimations. While better than pinching the skin or looking in the mirror, which certainly has some value, measuring your waist once a month is a simple way to regularly assess belly fat changes. Of course, most people already know this by how their pants fit.

The Carbo Belly

Getting rid of belly fat has become an obsession for millions of people. While “spot reducing,” such as endless sit-ups and crunches, or the latest ab machines to lose belly fat, is a popular trend in gyms everywhere, these approaches are never truly successful because the problem is metabolic, not poor muscle tone. To burn off excess central body fat, the cause of the problem must first be addressed.

Perhaps the most common cause of excess central body fat is refined carbohydrate consumption. Bread, cereal, pasta, potatoes, sports drinks and bars, and sugar, whether straight or hidden (or obvious) in many packaged products, are among the foods that are high glycemic and the number one culprit. When consumed, they cause a higher production of insulin, the hormone that converts up to half the carbohydrates one consumes into stored fat, typically in the belly. Insulin also impairs the ability of the body to burn its stored fat for energy.

It’s simple: If you want to reduce belly fat, don’t eat any more refined carbohydrates! I’m betting most people reading this already know about this most common of health recommendations.

Easier said than done? Possibly. Sugar and other refined carbs are powerfully addicting substances, so just saying no only works for those with a strong brain (will power). But another problem is sugar adversely affects the brain—and that’s the vicious cycle. (See “Sugar Addiction–Is It Real?“)

Increased belly fat is a serious sign of bodywide poor health. It’s commonly associated with heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and chronic inflammation. The problem is also seen in those with chronically high stress hormone, cortisol, and high blood fats (triglycerides), both easy to measure—cortisol in saliva and triglycerides in blood. 

Many people workout regularly yet still carry around too much belly fat, despite all the calories burned in training. The problem, of course, is that not enough fat calories are used. (See, “Think You Know What Being Aerobic Means?”)

In addition to increasing your pants size, increased belly fat can stretch the abdominal muscles. This lengthening causes them to weaken, triggering the sacrospinalis muscles in the back to tighten. This is a common recipe for chronic low back pain and disability. The same problem also alters gait and can interfere with exercise efficiency whether walking, running, biking, swimming or other activities. For a competitive athlete, this can be devastating.

By being both healthy and fit, and sometimes with the help of an appropriate healthcare professional, correction of these imbalances is possible (see “Muscle Imbalance”). The problem of excess of abdominal fat is relatively easy to remedy—avoid eating refined carbohydrates (see “The Two Week Test”).

First Meal-Fat Storage

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it replaces lost nutrients in the body used during sleep. Skipping this meal is one of the worst bad nutrition habits because it can contribute to a big belly. It’s important to eat soon after wakening, but not by breaking your all-night fast with just any food.

Many of my new patients who did not eat breakfast were the least healthy and fit. When asked why no breakfast, a common response was because it made them too hungry throughout the day. Those individuals also had more excess belly fat.

A reason for being hungry all day after eating breakfast is the consumption of a high glycemic meal. Whether cereal, a bagel or muffin, toast or other refined carbohydrate, this eating pattern is a recipe for too much belly fat. Eating healthy meals, and more frequently, can improve metabolism and help the body burn more fat.

Food Frequency

Another important factor that impacts belly fat is how often you eat. Food frequency can significantly control insulin and fat storage. For those getting off refined carbohydrates and seeking to reduce their gut, eating more often can be very helpful.

This does not mean eating more food. Consider the person who requires 2,000 calories a day. Instead of eating these calories spread out over, say, two or three meals, consume the same calories over five or six smaller meals.

Call them meals, snacks, or even desserts (yes, they can be healthy too—see “Recipes!”), eating every two to four hours can help stimulate metabolism so you burn more body fat.

These lifestyle adjustments can help reduce belly fat, slim you down all over, and increase energy and brainpower. In addition, the aerobic system will improve too, helping to reduce injuries, and train and race faster.

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