Ask anyone to identify their “problem areas,” or the parts of their body that they would like to see more toned, more defined and less “jiggly” and chances are they will first mention their abs. Almost everyone wants a flat stomach; after all, when you aren’t carrying around excess belly fat, you have far more options for clothing, and many people consider a smooth and toned stomach to be attractive.
As we age, though, a flat stomach becomes nothing more than a dream for many people. Diet, age, pregnancy and lifestyle changes often cause us to gain weight that seems to go right to the midsection. And while it might seem like it’s just annoying and cause to buy a new pair of (larger) pants, excess belly fat is actually harmful to your health.
Not All Fat Is Created Equal
There are two types of belly fat: Subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is the layer of fat just under the skin; it’s your “muffin top,” or the flabby, flexible fat that you can grab. Visceral fat is the fat that forms underneath our abdominal muscles around your internal organs. It’s firm — and can make your belly feel firm even if it’s round and protruding.
Subcutaneous fat is the bane of many a dieter’s existence. It’s usually the last to go when you’re adopting a healthier lifestyle and losing large amounts of weight. In fact, even healthy people might carry a few extra pounds of subcutaneous fat around their midsections; some scientists suggest that this phenomenon is an evolutionary holdover, hearkening back to when the body needed to store at least some fat for survival. Regardless, it’s often frustrating to those who want to be lean and toned all over, but for an otherwise healthy person it’s actually not anything to be overly concerned about.
Visceral fat, on the other hand, is far more dangerous. It is more responsive to changes in diet and exercise and easier to burn off, but it’s also very susceptible to hormonal changes, which presents some challenges for those trying to reduce their belly size. Scientists have determined that fat essentially acts as a type of gland, releasing various hormones that disrupt the natural balance of those substances in the body.
Visceral fat also releases certain immune system chemicals that can increase inflammation and insulin resistance, which raises the risk of diabetes. Making matters ever worse is the fact that visceral fat has a direct path to the portal vein, which carries the blood from the fat directly to the liver — which processes that fat into cholesterol, which contributes to a wide array of cardiovascular diseases.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, excess belly fat has also been linked to a wide array of other conditions, including colorectal cancer, high blood pressure and cognitive decline. A higher than average waist circumference — above 35 inches for women, 43 inches for men — also increased the risk of COPD by more than 50 percent, regardless of other risk factors including smoking.
Managing Belly Fat
Keeping belly fat in check comes down to two very important habits: A healthy diet and exercise. While you may think that “middle age” spread is inevitable, and to a certain extent it does become more difficult to manage your weight as you age, the more weight you gain in your midsection, the more likely you are to have serious health issues.
However, spending hours doing crunches and following fad diets designed to “melt away” belly fat probably aren’t going to get the job done, either. You need to engage in regular cardiovascular exercise combined with weight training to gain the most fat-burning benefits. Start with walking; a brisk 20-40 minute walk around the block after each meal can help rev up your metabolism and burn the excess fat and calories that contribute to weight gain.
As you gain strength, add more vigorous exercise; if you have trouble breathing due to existing COPD, talk with your doctor about medications that can help keep your airways free so you can work out. Ideally, you should plan to exercise for at least 45 minutes (25 minutes cardio, 20 minutes weight training) at least five days a week for the greatest fat burning benefits.
In addition, you need to pay attention to your diet. Obviously, high-fat, high-calorie junk foods aren’t going to help your fat-burning efforts, but it’s important to pay close attention to the “healthy” foods you are eating. Foods that are high in starch and sugar are the worst when it comes to belly fat, as they increase the amount of cortisol that your fat cells produce. Also known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol prevents the body from actually using fat for energy. To reduce fat, then, you need to maintain a diet comprised mostly of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.
Belly fat isn’t the only risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, COPD and other health issues. However, it’s a factor that can be managed by most people, and there’s no reason to increase the risk of serious disease unnecessarily. So if you can pinch more than an inch on your waist, or your jeans are feeling a little snug, take steps to lose the weight and get rid of the fat. You’ll look better on the beach and have better overall health.