Belly Fat: Sorting Science from Scams
Belly fat: These two words seem to be the bane of many a dieter’s existence. They’re also marketing gold. There’s no shortage of supplements, diet books, and web articles promising new ways to target the tummy region.
It turns out that many researchers and health experts are equally preoccupied with belly fat — though for different reasons. In the past 30 years, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the body’s fat stores. Scientists used to see fat as a dormant energy reserve, but we now know that fat is a very active, metabolically influential tissue, and its health consequences vary greatly depending on where it’s located.
If we focus our attention on the abdominal region, there are two major categories of fat to know about: subcutaneous fat (the visible, outer layer you can pinch) and visceral fat (also called intra-abdominal fat), which lies hidden in and around your internal organs. It turns out these two stores behave very differently. Visceral fat appears to be one of the most dangerous types of body fat. This inner fat reservoir releases harmful hormones and inflammatory compounds that cause undesirable metabolic changes, which appear to increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and other conditions.
It’s impossible to determine how much visceral fat you have without the aid of high-tech equipment, but there’s a very simple way to get a rough idea. Generally speaking, the body’s visceral fat store is proportional to the amount of visible belly fat. In other words, if you have a “beer belly”, apple-shaped figure, or large waist circumference, you’re likely carrying a lot of this unhealthy fat inside. And if you shed your exterior belly fat, you’ll lose the harmful visceral fat, too.
What Really Helps Burn Belly Fat?
Here’s where I get to share some good news. When you first start losing weight, you’ll automatically lose the bad, intra-abdominal fat at the fastest rate. This type of fat is your body’s most liquid asset — when your body needs energy, it’s the easiest source. It doesn’t matter how you choose to shed pounds — whether by cutting calories, ramping up exercise, or (ideally) both — the high-threat visceral fat will be prioritized as an energy pool relative to other fat stores in the early phase of weight loss. This may explain why dropping even 10 or 20 pounds can substantially decrease blood sugar and insulin levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and other risk factors. It also means that even if you don’t make it all the way to your pound goal, you’ll still be dramatically improving your health by losing weight.
And there’s more good news. One study showed that if you continue exercising after losing weight, you won’t regain any of that dangerous inner abdominal fat, even if you gain back a bit of your initial loss.
Diet and Belly Fat
The single most important factor in losing dangerous belly fat is maintaining a negative calorie balance — that is, eating less than you burn on a daily basis. By creating an energy deficit, you’ll automatically shed abdominal fat in a higher proportion to other types of fat during the first few months of dieting.
Still, you’ve probably heard that eating certain foods — like nuts, olive oil, berries, vinegar and green tea — can help you torch more belly fat, while others — like wheat and sugar — go straight to your midsection. There isn’t a lot scientific evidence to support these claims; many are based on just one or two short studies, or none at all.
That said, here are a few trials that showed some interesting, though preliminary, results. (Since they align with general principles of healthy eating, you won’t be doing any harm by incorporating more of these good-for-you foods into meals, as long as you account for the calories.)
Obese adults who followed a low-calorie diet while replacing all of their refined grains with whole grains lost a higher proportion of abdominal fat than those who ate only refined grains. More encouragement to go whole!
A small study (only 11 people) found that eating a diet rich in monounsaturated fats from olive oil for a month redistributed a small portion of the participants’ body fat from their midsection to their lower body. (Since the researchers instructed them to keep eating the same amount of food as they did before the study, their total body fat didn’t change.) In contrast, when they ate a higher-carb diet, they gained more fat in the abdominal region and lost fat elsewhere (although the researchers didn’t detail which foods the extra carbs came from). Longer-term studies have shown that the fat vs. protein vs. carb breakdown of weight-loss diets doesn’t have an effect on abdominal fat loss. Even if monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil, nuts, and avocado don’t help burn belly fat, they remain smart, heart-healthy options, so eat them often.
A new study, published this month in the journal Diabetes, found that participants who gained weight by overeating saturated fat-rich muffins (made with palm oil) gained more total body fat (relative to muscle) and more intra-abdominal fat compared to those who ate polyunsaturated fat-rich muffins (made with sunflower oil). Polyunsaturated fat — found in high amounts in nuts and liquid vegetable oils like safflower, grapeseed, peanut, and canola — is the healthiest type for your heart, so this is just another reason to make it the predominant fat in your diet.
By Johannah Sakimura, RD
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