Updated: Feb 6
What is belly fat?
The stomach muscle covers the entire midsection of the body and connects to the pelvis. A pad of excess fat which covers the muscle is called belly fat, also known as visceral fat. Visceral fat, or belly fat, extends deep into your abdomen and is close to your internal organs, such as the heart, stomach, and liver.
Visceral fat is different than subcutaneous fat, which lies just under the skin and is far more dangerous. It is made up large fat cells, which can grow bigger with time, and firmly pack into the spaces between the organs, having a negative effect on how they function. This can have a serious effect on your health. It is important to know that we all need some amount of belly fat to support healthy body function and cushion our organs in case of a bump or fall. It is when belly fat become excessive, increasing health risks, that it is time to take action!
What causes belly fat?
There are many contributing factors, most of which are directly related to diet and lifestyle.
Some examples include:
Excessive intake of added sugars and processed foods, such as cakes, cookies, candies, and other sweets.
Nutrient-poor processed foods and simple carbohydrates which are not able to be processed by the liver, are stored as fat in your fat cells, such as white pasta and flour products.
Heavy alcohol consumption.
Inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle.
The good news is there are also small steps you can take to reduce your risk. Such as embracing a healthy eating plan, incorporating fat burning foods like nuts, eggs, lean meats, peppers, leafy greens, legumes, and whole grains. Obtaining regular cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, biking, swimming as well as incorporating strength training activities, such as body weight exercises, lifting weights, and using resistance bands are also important components of maintaining a healthy waistline by helping the body to reduce body fat while increasing muscle mass, boosting metabolism.
How hormones are linked to belly fat
Extra belly fat can indicate an imbalance in the following hormones:
Cortisol: Cortisol is a hormone which is essential to survival. It is produced in the adrenal glands and dictates how energy is used, control of blood pressure, and promotes the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. It also helps the body mount a response to stressful situations. Undue stress results in an over-production, which can lead to cravings for sugar laden, high fat comfort foods. These excess calories and non essential nutrients the body cannot use are stored as fat, stored around the abdomen.
Estrogen: Too much estrogen is a large contributor of belly fat, and studies have shown this can affect both men and women. Excess abdominal fat in men increases the conversion of testosterone to estrogen, and as the estrogen levels rise, belly fat increases.
This gives rise to a vicious cycle of testosterone levels dropping lower than normal, leading to increased stress, increasing the production of cortisol, which increases more of those "unhealthy" food cravings, and in turn, belly fat.
The dangers of belly fat
Researchers at the American Diabetes Association revealed that visceral fat is just not there in an inactive state. It, in fact, this fat produces toxins, among which are chemicals known as cytokines, which increase risk of heart disease. These cytokines also make the system less sensitive to insulin, which can promote and influence diseases such as diabetes.
Studies at the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that visceral fat, or belly fat, is one of five components of a metabolic syndrome, which increases risk of the following conditions:
Stroke and heart disease.
Brain problems such as depression and dementia.
High blood pressure and possible hardening of the arteries.
Promotes the development of triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood.
Leads to poor blood sugar control which can lead to diabetes.
Causes inflammation in the body which increases the chances of falling prey to diseases.
The inflammation may also aggravate arthritis, and lead to other bone problems.
Some ways to help combat belly fat: your stress levels as low as possible.
Minimize stress. Stress may lead to a spike in blood sugar, which promotes insulin resistance.
Move more. Exercise is crucial to help combat belly fat (and reduce stress!), so commit to obtaining regular exercise to feel and look your best.
Minimize refined, acidic foods. The extra acid in your system, which cannot be metabolized, will be deposited in your fat cells.
Cut down on saturated fats. Fatty cuts of red meat, bacon, sausages, processed meats, and cheeses are high in the bad fats (aka saturated fat). Opt for lean cuts of beef, skinless chicken, and fish that boasts the good fat, such as salmon, trout, tuna, and hake, which are also rich in omega 3's.
Consume the good fats. Not all fats are bad. Adding some of the good fats (poly and mono unsaturated fats) to your regular diet can actually help the body burn the bad fat. Some examples of healthy fat foods include avocados, olives, walnuts, and fish such as salmon.
Drink less alcohol. Alcohol is high in calories and sugar, which often leads to fat gain, typically shown in the midsection ("beer belly" anyone?).
Banishing belly fat is healthy for many reasons.
Maintaining a healthy waistline is not about getting a six pack or obtaining unrealistic standards. Excessive belly fat can have a detrimental effect on your self-confidence, self-esteem, energy levels, and productivity, impacting how you show up in your day-to-day life. Feeling and looking good can help rebuild positive feelings about yourself. But the most importantly, the benefit of good health by reducing risk of disease empowers a longer, healthier, and happier quality of life. And you're worth it!
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Harvard Medical School – Massachusetts General Hospital.