the science of belly fat

Beer gut. COVID-30. Spare tire. Middle-age spread. Dad Bod.

The names above might make for eye-catching headlines, but the more we learn about belly fat, the greater the concern. And truth be told, whatever you want to call it, excess body fat can negatively impact your health and is the most dangerous. 

It’s not the visible fat you can pinch though; it's the dangerous fat is the fat surrounding our organs, which is called “visceral adiposity.” Visceral fat lies deep within the abdominal cavity, where it pads the spaces between abdominal organs. But while we’re here, let’s at least name the other type of fat that you can pinch or grab with your hand, which is called subcutaneous fat. This is also the more visible type of fat and does not appear to be as dangerous metabolically as visceral fat. 

Quick summary - fat accumulated in the lower body (the pear shape) is subcutaneous, while fat in the abdominal area (the apple shape) is largely visceral.

Let’s go a little deeper into this.

Visceral fat has been linked to metabolic disturbances and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Why is it more dangerous?  Well, visceral fat is hormonally active and due to its location – remember, surrounding your organs - and near the portal vein, which carries blood from the intestinal area to the liver. Visceral fat is directly linked with higher total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and insulin resistance. As if that’s not all enough, in women –visceral fat is also associated with breast cancer as well.

While it seems commonplace to accept middle-age weight gain as ‘the norm’ these changes aren’t an inevitable fact of aging. 

 

Exercise and Diet Help You Manage Belly Fat 

It’s about – surprise, surprise – the quantity & quality of what we eat as well as our daily movement & exercise, and even sleep. Notice what I didn’t say: it’s not about carbs, which was so often thought of as the culprit.  

“Eating more carbs was thought to be a source for increasing belly fat due to more insulin release. However, highly controlled studies have found that not to be true. It’s the total calories that matter most. The carbohydrate-rich foods we enjoy also come packed with fat (like pizza and chips and cookies) and overall calories. This means we are eating more calories than we think and when we cut those out we lose weight” says Spencer Nadolsky, DO, head physician at Renaissance Periodization.

So if it’s not “just carbs” what is it?  

As Dr. Nadolsky references, it’s mostly overall calories. This isn’t to say the quality of those calories doesn’t matter as well.  Fruit and oatmeal are both sources of carbs, as are soda and cookies. Just like prime rib is a source of protein, as is a leaner flank steak and grilled salmon. 

See the differences?

Without getting into specifics, as that’s been done time and time again with The Pursuit, here’s a quick summary.

First, balance your plate.  

That means aiming for half your plate to be colorful produce – with about a 2:1 ratio of veggie:fruit, ¼ of your plate with fiber-rich grains and the last ¼ with lean protein.

Then, of course, physical activity plays a big role as well.  Again, there are many workouts to choose from and options within the pages of the Pursuit, but what I’d also suggest is not just making sure to incorporate regular, structured exercise, is consistent movement throughout the day.

Every 60 minutes, move. That might mean standing, taking a quick walk, doing 20 body weight squats, 20 pushups or any other easy bodyweight exercise. All of that movement adds up. I call these micro workouts that all add up to big numbers and results at the end of the day.

As an example, I have a pullup bar on my office door.  I set a timer for 60 minutes and each time it goes off, I alternate – first hour, 10 pullups, next, 10 pushups, then 10 squats and repeat throughout the day. I also take a few longer walks throughout the day to get to a minimum of at least 10,000 steps. Aside from those movement breaks or micro workouts, I have my normal structured workouts as well. 

All that movement one, keeps my energy up, but two, keeps me moving and helps maintain my health and body weight. Keep in mind, while I started talking about belly fat, nothing you can do – not endless amounts of sit-ups, side bends or crunches - can specifically or spot-reduce belly fat. 

Maintaining your health, avoiding the dad bod or COVID-30 is just what this doctor ordered with the few tips and strategies discussed throughout.

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