Vanity may drive our desire for a flat stomach but it’s the havoc excess fat wreaks inside our bodies that should concern us.
There are 2 types of belly-fat or central obesity – visceral and subcutaneous. The fat depots buried behind your muscles and wrapped around your organs is visceral fat. Subcutaneous fat is the squidgy kind underneath your skin that you can see and grab.
Visceral fat has strong links to health problems and is an indicator of insulin resistance, which can lead to type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and more. A U.S. National Institute of Health study conducted on 359 middle-aged women (166 of them, of African heritage) found a direct correlation between visceral fat and long-term metabolic, sexual and mental health consequences.
People who constantly have protruding gut are often carrying visceral fat around and are at risk of health problems.
Why do we accumulate belly fat?
Simply put, our nutrition and lifestyle play major roles in the build up of stomach fat.
Nutrition. Insulin, the hormone that delivers sugar to cells for energy, plays a key role in central obesity. When you eat sugary or starchy foods, your blood sugar spikes and insulin is released. The body wants to use fat for energy but can store fat more readily than sugar. If your plate is often laden with sweet treats, like doughnuts and pizza, your body stores the fat and utilizes sugar instead for energy. The sugar your cells don’t use is then stored as more fat.
Dieting, yo-yo or otherwise, is also a major culprit. Know that how you fuel your body and what you fuel with can create immense stress that results in sleepless nights, anxiety, short-temperedness, headaches and consequently, high cortisol levels.
Cortisol, also commonly called the “stress hormone,” not only promotes weight gain but causes fat to be deposited more in the stomach area than hips. Having a healthy relationship with healthy food and a healthful lifestyle is the best way to stay consistent and keep the belly fat at bay.
Lifestyle. Stress leads to elevated cortisol levels which provide drive when we are under stress and enhances the brain’s use of glucose. However, with today’s lifestyles of worrisome workloads, sedentary living, financial burdens, poor nutrition, limited sleep, to name a few, we sustain stress levels and consequently, cortisol levels that break down muscle tissue and increases trunk fat storage.
Then there’s age. With every passing year, you might feel like you are getting less lean. Unfair as it is, muscle mass decreases with age. Less muscle mass decreases metabolism, making it challenging to maintain a healthy weight much less lose some fat. Add to that, the shift of fat distribution from the lower body to trunk with menopause, and the kilos pile on.
How do we get rid of it?
You guessed it – with healthy nutrition and lifestyle changes! Here are my 3 big tips.
1. Fuel right – They say lean abs are sculpted in the kitchen. ‘They’ are right. Don’t skip meals, but to shrink your waistline, skip the sweet treats. Instead, eat antioxidant loaded and metabolism boosting fibre. Beyond providing roughage, fibre helps you feel fuller longer. Green vegetables and fruits are excellent sources of fibre.
Invest in lean sources of protein, like lean turkey, wild salmon, and legumes, which have high thermic effects meaning your body uses the most energy to process these foods.
You also need dietary fats like coconut, avocados, and nuts. These slow-burning, stable sources of energy that can improve satiety will also rev up your metabolism. That said, stay away from trans-fats like margarine and vegetable oil. This artificial hydrogenated gunk that will clog your arteries and pack on the central kilos.
2. Sleep and beat the stress – Sleep regulates your metabolism and cortisol. This means that it impacts overall health and weight management significantly. Irregular sleep patterns, restless and inadequate sleep are linked to weight gain, poor food choices, and increased risk of heart disease.
If you have trouble sleeping, try switching everything off, including your mind. An app called Relax Melodies can help by providing white noise. Teas like chamomile and lemon balm can help relax and prepare you for a good night’s rest.
Being plagued by constant stress and anxiety is not only causing forgetfulness, poor health choices, it is giving you the pooch too. Take some time for you and do what you love and exercise. Yoga is an excellent exercise for stress reduction. You can start with our beginner guide to yoga practice.
3. HIIT it hard – Spot training, where you concentrate your exercise on a particular area of the body to preferentially burn fat in that area is a myth and does not work. Rather than aiming for hundreds of ab crunches a day, focus on an exercise regimen that engages the whole body.
Lifting weights and performing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises will increase lean muscle mass, and sculpt your abs with cardiovascular and metabolic benefits. You will also be improving your sleeping habits and insulin resistance, combating stress, all of which contribute to lean and healthy abs.
To build stronger ab muscles you can also incorporate our plank challenge in your interval training.
We’ll love to hear from you! Are you struggling with belly fat? What have you tried – what worked and what didn’t?
Orjiugo Oguguo is an engineer with a passion for fitness. She is an ACE certified health coach and also has fitness certifications in Schwinn, Les Mills Body Combat, Body Pump, and CXWorx. Follow her on Twitter @The_Orjiugo and Instagram #The_Orjiugo.
Alexandra Fiman Maul, MPH