Busting Belly Fat Myths—and Uncovering the Truths

Busting Belly Fat Myths—and Uncovering the Truths

What do you think these numbers represent?: 69.3, 195.5, 39.7 and 63.8, 166.2, 37.5.

No, they’re not the stock prices of Tesla and Snapchat. They’re the height, weight and waist circumference of the average American man and woman, respectively. And they add up to huge health problems. The biggest culprit? The waist measurements—39.7 inches (guys) and 37.5 inches (gals)—indicating that most of you have large deposits of visceral belly fat surrounding your internal organs.

Study after study shows that whether you’re normal weight, overweight or obese, it’s the amount of visceral belly fat you have pushing your belly button ever-forward that puts your health at greatest risk. You see, visceral fat has unique—and very active—physiologic and metabolic characteristics. As it nestles around your internal organs, too much visceral fat can trigger metabolic changes, alter the way your liver functions, impede glucose uptake from blood (where it does damage to your cells) and amp up body-wide inflammation.

What sends fat to your belly? Visceral fat is deposited when you eat more calories than you burn and eat highly processed and sugary foods. Those foods spike blood glucose levels and hype-up production of insulin. Excess glucose is stored as fat and excess insulin triggers a hormonal cascade that ends up depositing fat in your midsection.

Recent studies show how far-reaching the impact of visceral fat is on your health and wellbeing.

Belly fat and stress: Chronic stress drenches your cells with cortisol. That, in turn, stimulates glucose production in the liver that, if excessive, gets stored as fat. It also causes relocation of fat to deposits deep in the abdomen and enlarges the size of fat cells. Then in a vicious, visceral cycle, fat cells in the belly stimulate production of cortisol in surrounding tissue. The result: immune system dysregulation, body-wide inflammation, increased risk of heart disease and anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain and high blood pressure.

Belly fat and cancer: The American Institute for Cancer Research says the risk of colon cancer increases five percent for each one-inch increase in waist size. An oversized waist also has been found to increase the risk for pancreatic, breast and colon cancer (after menopause) and uterine cancers.

Dialing in diabetes: Excessive belly fat is associated with a twofold increase of your risk for diabetes—even if you’re a “normal” weight.

Cascading cardio problems: All that abdominal fat increases the load of free fatty acids in the liver; that, in turn, increases lousy LDL cholesterol and lowers heart-friendly HDL cholesterol. The result? A much greater risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.

Try these flat belly boosters
You can banish that belly fat by changing your diet and exercise habits: You’re aiming for a waist size of 35 inches or less for women and 40 or less for men.

Physical activity: Get a minimum of 150 minutes weekly of extra physical activity. Better yet, 10,000 steps a day and two to three 30-minute sessions of strength training weekly. Want to do more? The STRIDE study found the equivalent of jogging 20 miles per week substantially decreases stores of visceral fat.

Nutritional upgrade: Ditch trans fats. Lab studies show eating trans fats causes up to 30 percent more visceral fat to be deposited in the belly. So, steer clear of margarine, store-bought baked goods, frostings and crackers, microwavable breakfast sandwiches, frozen pizza and any food that has partially hydrogenated oils or fats listed on the ingredient label.

Also, stick with 100 percent whole grains. A 12-week study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found obese adults on a weight-loss regimen who ate only whole grains lost twice as much belly fat as participants eating processed grains.

Ditch saturated fats found in dairy and red and processed meats. A Swedish study found that compared to guys eating polyunsaturated fats, sat fat eaters gained substantially more belly fat.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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