Do you often find yourself pinching a layer of fat around your stomach? Only if this belly fat can somehow get sucked out, you would look perfect? Well figuratively!
Belly fat is likely the most hated kind of fat, universally! It is not only a problem for overweight people but even those you would think are thin. Before we get to how we can blast it out of our bodies we have to know a little about it. You have to first ‘Know Thy Enemy’, yes? Lets begin:
What is this belly fat? And how is it different from fat in other parts of the body?
Fats are of two types – Visceral and Subcutaneous. Subcutaneous is the kind that you can pinch off of your body while the visceral sits deep inside, closer to your organs and is the one that you cannot see. From our previous post, you would know that fat is not a dead tissue. It actively controls a lot of your body’s functions. Your belly fat is therefore comprised of both visceral fat which you cannot see and also subcutaneous which is what you keep giving hate stares to in the mirror. Read about how to measure body fat.
Fat anywhere on your body is less harmful than the one sitting closer to your organs. This visceral fat and generally the fat around your stomach is directly related to numerous metabolic disorders like high cholesterol, diabetes, blood pressure, etc (Ref 1,2). In fact even if you are not obese, high visceral fat accumulation can still lead to coronary artery diseases. (Ref3)
A digital body fat measuring scale will help you find out both your overall body fat as well as your visceral fat levels.
Why do you have belly fat?
Body fat distribution and why some people have more fat stores around their belly can be explained via-
Your Gene Expression
You adopt a lot of things from your parents including how fat will be stored in your body. If your parents have an apple shaped body then you are also likely to store more fat around your abdomen. Your body has fat stores that it doesn’t let go off easily in times of fat loss.
The mechanism of how this happens is very interesting – fat cells respond to commands from the hormones about whether to store fat or release it. These commands are picked up by the receptors present in fat cells, important receptors for this discussion are the alpha 2 adrenoceptor and beta adrenoceptor. Alpha-2 are not receptive to fat burn signal while the beta types are sensitive to it thereby causing release of the fat stored in the fat cells (Ref4). The fat cells with higher number of alpha-2 type receptors do not respond efficiently to the fat burn signal. As you might have guessed where ever these type of fat cells are concentrated is where you have your stubborn fat stores.
This explains why the fat around your problematic area is particularly stubborn – they are not effectively receiving the fat burn signals of the body. So you might see yourself thinning out everywhere except a few pockets where fat refuses to move.
Also it is not right to blame your parents as this has been taking place for generations. Our ancestors lived in times of food scarcity where fat meant protection – from famine, for energy reserves and even to ward off cold! (Ref5). As the human brain developed, its requirement for energy dense food increased and the gene expression that got forwarded in our species was the one that favoured fat preservation around our important organs (before you say anything about your head not having rolls of fat, you should know that the brain is made up of 60% fat!! -Ref6).
In women, the stubborn fat cells are largely clustered around their reproductive organs – hips, butt and thighs while for men it is around their abdomen. This might not be the case for everybody as hormonal health and also environmental factors can affect fat distribution in the body.
What can you do about this? Short of cosmetic surgery, there is nothing you can do to change your body’s fat distribution program. What you can do is keep your body fat levels low (around 10-15% for men and 18-22% for women) and to achieve this do not follow a very low calorie diet which will slow down your fat metabolism. Our previous article on how much weight loss you should target per week.
Your Hormonal Health
The main hormones that you can influence that influence fat reserves in the body is Insulin and Cortisol. There are others which are also a part of the equation including Leptin, Gherin, Interleukin-6 (IL-6), adiponectin, immunoglobulin A(IgA), etc but since there is nothing much you can do about it we will leave them be.
Insulin is an anabolic hormone, in other words, it builds, thereby promoting not only muscle growth but also fat storage. Insulin in the blood signals the body’s cell to start taking glycogen from the blood and start storing it. Glycogen can be stored in the muscles and also converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Eating excess calories increases the amount of glycogen in the blood and triggers fat storage. Consequently, elevated insulin levels inhibits the process of fat burning. It is in fact a master hormone that controls several others and its efficient working means the body can correctly regulate body’s total fat mass.
What can you do about this? Become Insulin Sensitive. Do you automatically stop eating after you have had a certain amount in each meal or do you stop eating when you feel full? A lot of people are not sensitive to this feeling of fullness that comes after a meal.
When you say that you can eat a bucketload of food before you feel even remotely full it is because either you are eating too fast or you are not able to sense your body’s signal that it is full. In other words your insulin sensitivity is poor.
If your body is sensitive to insulin, then managing your weight becomes easier. If you eat too much refined carbohydrates, sugar, soda or even alcohol it can increase your insulin resistance thereby creating havoc in your body’s metabolic control system (Ref7).
This is what improves your insulin sensitivity – exercise, more protein in your diet and less number of hours sitting (Ref8). Even if you exercise regularly, sitting for too long or general lack of muscle contraction for too long can still lead to insulin resistance, adversely impact triglycerides and HDL cholesterol levels (Ref9). If for some reason you cannot reduce the number of hours you spend sitting there are two things you can do – regular muscle contractions (tighten any part of your muscle group and relax after 10-15 seconds) and stretches through the day.
Even green tea, lemon, cinnamon, fibre, omega-3 fatty acids, etc all improve insulin sensitivity (Ref10,11, 12, 13, 14), so include as many of them as you can in your daily diet.
Cortisol is the other hormone that I want to discuss which directly affects accumulation of fat on the belly. It is released by the adrenal gland as a response to stress. Cortisol causes increase in blood pressure, blood sugar and activates the body’s immune functions, etc. Through this hormone the body is able to maintain balance between the environment and the body’s functions. However, in case of chronic stress (relentless stress) its continued presence creates metabolic disturbances that is characterised by increased fat deposits in the abdomen (Ref15).
What can you do about this? Limiting Cortisol by limiting stress. In my previous article on stress I have discussed how it depends merely on your attitude and less on your environment. All of us should do something to counteract the affects of stress – this can be meditation, a relaxing yoga class, or anything that takes us away from our worries.
Other factors that add to belly fat are over consumption of alcohol and also smoking cigarettes. Having more than 21 units of alcohol in a week is positively linked to high fat accumulation around the stomach (Ref16). Alcohol can be of any type from beer, spirits to even wine, all trigger fat storage around the abdominal region. Cigarette smokers over the long term have shown to have higher deposits of fat around their stomach than their hips or any other part of their body. Even though overall they have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index), their bodies tend to favour the mid-section when it comes to fat storage (Ref17)
Some myths about losing belly fat
These things will not help and you can save yourself a lot of sweat and tears by not falling in their trap –
Not eating carbs after x pm – this is simply a way to restrict calories – something that you can spread across the entire day and also doing so will be more sustainable
Extremely low calorie diets – this will cause your fat metabolism specifically to slow down. You might lose more muscles and less fat ending up with thin arms and legs but a protruding torso!
Doing ab crunches – Ab crunches are for building your abdominal muscles i.e. strengthening your core – which will not be visible under a layer of fat. Fat reserves from all over your body are utilised to fuel your workouts and so do exercises that maximise overall calorie burn.
Doing low intensity, long duration cardio – While cardio has its place when it comes to fat loss, it should not be the only exercise you do. You are missing out on the high calorie burn after exercise that you can get from resistance training or HIIT. Target for variety in your routine to burn fat more efficiently and with less time spent in the gym. I have written a detailed article on this one which you can read here.
In conclusion, fat stores in the stomach are different from the rest of your body. As you start losing weight, it will come off in layers from all over your body where you think of your belly fat as having a much deeper reserve. You have to dig long and deep to exhaust them completely – it will probably be the last ones to leave your body. The best thing you can do is create a deficit in your diet enough to give you some fat loss per week while also exercising to improve your hormones sensitivity.
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