All over the world and even up until as recently as the early 1900s in America, belly fat was considered attractive. In men, it was proof of prosperity, while softly rounded women were prized for their luscious curves. The health crazes of the early 1900s dealt the first blow to the fuller figure, and the Flappers of the 1920s kicked curves to the curb with their skinny, silk-stockinged legs.
In modern times, it is known that a little extra padding won't hurt you. Still, it is always possible to have too much of a good thing, and fat that is concentrated around your waist and belly does bring health risks.
While losing weight can be one of the most frustrating challenges you can face, the benefits of losing that spare tire make it well worth the effort. Melting off those extra pounds can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, ease the strain on your joints and help your clothing fit more comfortably.
Understand Your Belly Fat
The simplest answer is that if you take in more calories than your body can use, the extra is stored as fat. Unfortunately, according to the experts at the University of Chicago, it's a little more complicated than that. Other factors that contribute to gaining and retaining a dangerous amount of extra fat include:
- Socioeconomic status
- Emotional state
Some of these things, such as your genetic makeup and necessary medications, are not within your control to change. Your metabolism, or the rate at which you burn calories, can be increased through regular exercise. Your socioeconomic status and lifestyle can be changed over time if you are willing to put in the work, while your emotional relationship with food can also change with the help of a therapist or support group.
Recognize Belly Fat Risks
There are two kinds of belly fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is stored just beneath your skin and is necessary to keep you warm, protect your organs and provide fuel if you are sick or unable to eat. Visceral fat is stored much deeper, collecting around your organs. This second type can be very dangerous to your health.
Belly fat can contribute to a whole host of health problems, including asthma, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and joint pain, due to the increased stress extra weight puts on them, especially your hips and knees. Carrying around a lot of extra weight also makes every day tasks harder and can affect your self-esteem.
In addition, a protein called fibroblast growth factor-2, which is typically stored in visceral abdominal fat, encourages cells to become cancerous, according to researchers at Michigan State University. This is especially true in women, where estrogen also plays a role. Not everyone who carries visceral fat in their abdomen will absolutely develop cancer, but it may be possible to lower your risk by losing the fat stored around your organs.
Know Your Poison
Natural sugars such as the fructose found in fruits and honey are necessary to help fuel your brain function, and they offer solid nutrition in the form of vitamins, fiber and powerful antioxidants. Where most people get in trouble is by ignoring these healthy sugars and indulging instead in processed foods. Most processed foods contain some form of fructose, the most unhealthy of which is high fructose corn syrup.
According to the nutrition experts at the University of California, your body can process only a certain amount of fructose at a time. It stores the excess in your liver in the form of triglycerides, which are a type of cholesterol. When these are released into your bloodstream, they not only raise your level of low-density lipoproteins, or bad cholesterol in your blood, they cause "sugar belly" which is the accumulation of visceral fat in your abdomen.
The accumulation of triglycerides in your liver can also cause insulin resistance. If this happens, your liver is unable to regulate your blood sugar levels. This can send more triglycerides into your bloodstream, creating a dangerous closed loop that can lead to type 2 diabetes and all the other health issues that come along with it.
Shake the Sugar Habit
According to the scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, if your waist measurement is larger than 35 inches if you are a woman and 40 inches if you are a man, then you most likely have developed sugar belly. You can trim off a few inches by tightening the muscles at your core, but you still need to remove the visceral fat to improve your health and reduce your risk of future disease.
The best way to avoid or melt away sugar belly is to stay away from processed foods. This includes not only the obvious culprits such as mass-produced baked goods, candy, low-quality ice cream, sugar-added juices and full-sugar sodas, but also other foods in which fructose-corn syrup and other refined sugars frequently hide — such as canned sauces and soups and many other mass-produced foods where you would not expect to find sugar.
Reading labels is a good idea if you rely on commercial sauces, soups and other foods, but the most reliable way to cut refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup out of your diet is to cook as much as you can from scratch. Preparing meals ahead of time can also help you resist the temptation caused by hunger pangs.
Read more: 5 Easy Ways to Cut Down on Sugar
Belly Fat Diet Plan
The most important consideration in designing a diet plan to lose stomach fat is to make sure that you are getting complete nutrition and taking in enough calories per day to keep your metabolism working. Start by cutting 500 calories per day from your normal diet to aim for a loss of one pound per week. Do not go below 1,500 calories for women and 2,000 calories for men.
The most effective meal plan to lose belly fat, according to the experts at Rush University Medical Center, is a Mediterranean diet. This is high in fruits and vegetables, but the most powerful component is its reliance on the monounsaturated fatty acids found in avocados, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil. These, along with eating yogurt, may help reduce the fat storage in your belly.
Apple cider vinegar appears to help reduce fat in animals, but tests on humans have not been as successful. Still, when mixed with olive oil and herbs, it makes a lovely salad dressing without the calories of a mayonnaise-based dressing or the unhealthy additives in most bottled dressings. Create your meals so that half of your plate is vegetables, one-quarter is complex carbohydrates and the remaining quarter is lean protein.
Add Cardio and Weight Training
The best belly fat burner, according to researchers at Northwestern University's Women's Health Research Institute, is to work out for at least 45 minutes per day, five days per week. This can be done at home or in the gym, and should include both cardiovascular activities and weight training. Finding a workout routine that you enjoy can go a long way toward helping you stick with it.
Cardiovascular exercise, or cardio, raises your heart rate and can help re-energize a sluggish metabolism. This can be accomplished by walking, jogging, running, bicycling or using a stationary bike, swimming, dancing or any other activity that leaves you slightly out of breath but still able to hold a conversation. Walking is an excellent way to start, if you are physically able to and are not used to more structured exercise.
Weight training is valuable not only to strengthen muscles, but because lean muscle tissue requires more calories to maintain while at rest than stored fat does. Building a bit of muscle also makes you appear leaner, and the extra strength can make even simple tasks such as blow drying your hair or carrying groceries a little easier.
Read more: Exercises to Get Rid of Lower Belly Fat
Pull It All Together
According to the International Sports Sciences Association, once you have adjusted your diet and started exercising, you can ramp up your results by doing three things: Cut down on carbohydrates, increase the frequency and intensity of your workouts, and make sure you eat the right foods at the right times.
Cut Out Empty Carbs
If you have already cut out sugar and processed foods, it's time to look at your carbohydrate intake. Let go of white bread, white rice, white pasta and white potatoes unless you are also eating the skins. Starchy carbs like this have almost the same effect on your body as sugar, so replace them with complex carbs such as brown rice, whole grain breads and pastas and sweet potatoes.
Amp Up Your Workouts
Increase the frequency and intensity of your workouts, either by walking every day instead of five days per week and increasing the distance and your pace. Use slightly heavier weights when strength training or increase the number of repetitions you do each set.
Time Your Meals Right
Eat protein before a workout and carbs afterward. This is because eating carbs before a workout offers your body glucose to burn for fuel, when what you want it to do is burn stored fat. After a workout, your body is at its peak efficiency for processing carbs.
- University of Chicago: Overview of Obesity
- Michigan State University: MSU Researchers Find How Belly Fat Could Increase Cancer Risk
- University of California: Sugar’s Sick Secrets: How Industry Forces Have Manipulated Science to Downplay the Harm
- University of California, San Francisco: SugarScience: Too Much Can Make Us Sick
- Rush University Medical Center: Is There "One Trick" to Losing Belly Fat?
- Northwestern University: Exercise Reduces Intra-Abdominal Fat, a Health Risk for Women
- International Sports Sciences Association: 3 Science-Backed Methods for Losing Fat