With summer winding down, those of us who vowed to use the nicer weather to eat better and work out more to shed that beer gut and reveal that six-pack are running out of time to accomplish that mission – if we haven't already succeeded. This isn't just about looking better and buffer in a bathing suit, though. It's also about our longevity – trimming the belly isn't just about beach-time vanity, it's also about our long-term health. Perhaps you have already heard or read about this, but it bears repeating: an expanded belly is typically accompanied by a buildup of visceral fat deep beneath the skin and in proximity to our vital organs – our heart, lungs and liver, for starters. It is that deeper fat that can be the biggest problem. Too much of it – and this is true even for thinner folks who lack the bigger belly but have excess visceral fat buried beneath – can mean a higher risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia and some cancers, among them breast cancer and colon cancer, per webmd.com. All fat is not the same, and that holds true for visceral fat. It isn't just that under-belly visceral fat is located so close to vital organs that makes it a health hazard; it also produces stress hormones such as cortisol as well as inflammation-producing compounds known as cytokines that tamper with the body's manufacture of insulin. The result, per prevention.com, is worse than just being generally overweight; you're looking at increased risks of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
BMI Doesn't Tell Whole StoryMany health-care providers and health organizations turn to the BMI (body mass index) as their main source for determining an individual's health risk. The BMI can be misleading, however, per healthline.com, because evidence has shown that people with excess belly fat are at an increased risk of developing health problems. Losing that abdominal fat can be especially difficult. If there is such a thing as the most stubborn fat, belly fat is it.
Factors that Produce Belly FatA quick aside, though, before we get into looking at the factors that can leave us vulnerable to unwanted belly augmentation – this whole belly-fat thing isn't just for the beer-swilling dudes and burger-devouring guys among us, it is for women as well. That's right, the gals are also subject to acquiring big bellies, and we're not talking pregnancy. Women are especially prone to weight gain around the belly after menopause, when there is a slowdown in production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, resulting in women holding on to belly weight, which suddenly becomes twice as hard to shed. OK, let's look at some of the factors relative to belly fat worth knowing:
- Age. Growing older means a change in how our bodies gain or lose weight, and much of it has to do with a slowdown of our metabolic rate. As we age, our bodies need fewer calories to operate properly, which means a simultaneous need for us to consume less.
- Exercise. Some health and fitness experts say that while regular cardiovascular workouts – walking, jogging, swimming, etc. – are good, it's also advisable to combine that with weight training. Muscle burns more calories than fat, and therefore you burn more calories throughout the day by having more muscle, Cleveland Clinic endocrinologist Sangeeta Kashyap, MD, tells health.com. Whatever you decide to do, discuss first with your physician.
- Diet. This will be covered in some more detail in another article coming soon here, but if there's one point to leave you with for now, it's that it's actually OK to eat some fats, such as monounsaturated fats (e.g., olive oil and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (like the omega-3's found in fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel) because they have anti-inflammatory properties, per health.com.
- Stress. No question, reducing stress is much easier said than done. Know this, though; the stress hormone cortisol can boost the amount of fat your body clings to while also enlarging fat cells. Attack stress with exercise or meditation. Attack stress with all natural herbs. Force yourself to carve out an hour a day – OK, shoot for 30 minutes – to do something fun or relaxing unrelated to what is stressing you, be it the job, your bank account or the family.
- Sleep. Fewer than five hours or more than eight per night can work against you. Falling on the wrong side of either of those parameters can mean more visceral fat gain than sticking to six to seven hours of shut-eye a night.
- Attitude. Having a problem getting motivated to be healthier? Talk it out with a loved one, friend or even a counselor.
- Alcohol. A little amount of alcohol is OK. Anything more, well, as they say, belly up to the bar.
- Sugar and sweets. Cut them out, or at least cut well back on them.