Why belly fat (visceral fat) is bad and how to get rid of the beer gut
Firstly – not all fat is bad. We need a level of fat that allows not only for energy storage (important if there was a food shortage), but for the secretion of leptin (a hormone that helps regulate our appetite). It also secretes adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory protein that helps regulate blood glucose levels. It helps protect our organs by providing insulation and protection against mechanical loads, and it helps keep us warm. We used to consider fat to be inert ,a bit of a dead weight in comparison to muscle tissue, however it is now known as a highly active metabolic and endocrine organ. Of course, too much fat in the wrong place can create a cascade of problems that result in a metabolic health disaster. While women lament the presence of fat on their butt and their thighs (the ‘pear’ shape), this is not typically a health problem. The type of fat I’m talking about is visceral, or abdominal fat which is more prevalent in men (the ‘apple’ shape). If you’ve got fat around the middle that is easy to pinch and manoeuvre around, then that’s likely subcutaneous fat that is stored under the skin and it’s not the type of fat I’m talking about. It’s the hard fat that is stored deeper in the body, beyond the subcutaneous fat that physically looks more like a beer belly that creates the health issues. Visceral fat (as it is known) is associated with lower HDL cholesterol, higher triglycerides, increased insulin resistance, and pro-inflammatory cytokines. It releases fatty acids into your liver and your portal vein, and these accumulate in the pancreas, heart and other abdominal organs. This increases risk of type 2 diabetes, of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease risk, potentially through a reduction in the production of endogenous glutathione (a major antioxidant in the body) and subsequent increase is oxidative stress.
Visceral fat cells have more receptor sites for cortisol and insulin, which may promote more visceral fat accumulation when there are elevated levels of these hormones, which is often the case in those who have excess body fat levels. Visceral fat accumulation (the ‘beer belly’ look) is increasing among the population –and it’s not just the sedentary, the older people or those who may be classified as ‘obese’ among us. There are more and more people who may be of a ‘healthy’ weight (using body mass index as a measure) who are storing excess fat around their middle. Observationally, there are certainly younger men who are moving from university into the workforce who are looking well beyond their years due to the presence of a belly their shirt can barely hide. The problem, to my mind, is that it is so common now that it is normalised.
Here’s some simple things that you can instigate to go into 2018 feeling like you’re on the way to tackling the belly fat.
1. Remove all starch and sugar. Yep- that’s pretty much all processed food along with, for some people, all starchy food including your starchy vegetables. Sounds drastic? To be honest – visceral fat is not something that should be taken lightly, and this is a sure-fire way to reduce your insulin and cortisol response and start utilising your own fat stores as energy, thus reducing the inflammatory belly fat.
2. Keep your protein and vegetable intake high – honestly go for gold on these things, as it is super difficult to overeat either. This is what makes a higher protein approach so effective and more and more research is showing that a higher protein intake helps preserve muscle mass, increase metabolic rate, protects bones and our immune system and is not detrimental to long term health (as I discussed in this blog post). And apart from potatoes, kumara, taro, corn, peas and parsnip you can eat to your heart’s content on the other vegetables. Fill your boots.
3. Optimise your testosterone (and oestrogen) levels. Increases in abdominal fat are associated with decreases in testosterone, and the administration of the hormone can diminish the abdominal fat. Estrogen deficiency is also associated with higher amounts of abdominal fat. The thing is, though, adequate sleep, getting sunlight exposure and the right time and minimising exposure to blue spectrum light at night can all help boost testosterone production. Adequate zinc and magnesium can also help (ie following the first two pointers above).
4. Take care of your liver to help detoxify hormones and xenobiotics present in the body that contribute to the inflammatory pathways. Alongside pointers 1-3, lemon oil (from zest or using an essential oil such as doTerra) helps with glutathione peroxidase activity, an important antioxidant in our body), as does sulfurophane, which is a component produced in broccoli sprouts when they are broken down.
5. Exercise part 1. Now if you have a lot of visceral fat to lose, even if you are an athlete, my best advice is to start slow and prevent any adverse risks from going too hard too quickly- even if you have previously competed in endurance events such as the Ironman. It is risky to hit hard training in an effort to get rid of visceral fat that has accumulated over a number of months or years, despite how good you used to be. If your goal is to get back into training, please don’t let a diet and training program kick start that for you. You are way better off allowing for a loss of at least 10 kilograms (and light movement) following these pointers than diving headfirst into a 16 week half or full ironman or marathon training program. Walking in a fasted state (ie before breakfast) in the morning, and after dinner in the evening for 15 minutes could be a good place to start. If you don’t enjoy walking, try a light windtrain for the same length of time.
6. Exercise part 2. If you aren’t in any danger of a coronary event, then the best type of exercise may well be the one that you will stick to – adherence will trump anything. Research does support high intensity intermittent training is comparable to continuous training for reducing central adiposity, and a spin type class, with some interval based efforts (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off) also effective. The main message here is that you don’t need to spend a long time to get the benefits of exdercise, and you can improve many measures of cardiovascular health – and fitness – with short sharp training, especially if time is of the essence.
6. Brown fat is metabolically active (full of mitochondria) produces heat. White fat contains no mitochondria and isn’t metabolically active. We can generate brown fat through both exercise (through the activity of a hormone called irisin) amd exposure to cold – even a few minutes in the cold water or shower. Brown adipose tissue produces heat, burns calories and doesn’t produce tumour necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), a pro-inflammatory cytokine present with white adipose tissue. The water temperature doesn’t need to be ice ice cold- even the coldest your tap goes will generally be enough to elicit a gasping reflex. Start with 20 seconds cold, 10 seconds warm, a couple of times at the end of your shower. You’ll likely feel invigorated also- a great place to start.
7. Catechins (green tea), cacao, red wine, dark berries all have catechins that support the loss of visceral fat. Of course, these things in themselves will do nothing in the absence of the major dietary and lifestyle factors. However, a cacao drink (with 1 or so tablespoons of cacao) per day, including some berries in your breakfast or as a snack with some walnuts (a small handful at the end of a meal) and three cups of a green tea (for those who aren’t caffeine sensitive) could all contribute to a reduction in visceral fat.
My meal plans follow the major points listed in the first part of article, and the other points are 'add ons' that could be super beneficial. Supporting a healthy lifestyle can start with diet, or for some, it's sleep, exercise, and stress management that are the things to focus on. Regardless, if you know you've got some belly fat to lose, making it a priority for your health could be the best thing you can do in 2018- and I know these tips will help!