For most of my life I tried to put on weight. I wanted a nice, voluptuous body with sexy curves. A lot of sisters jokingly offered to give me a few of their inches. Then as I approached my 40s, I finally started gaining weight — and fat — and guess where it landed? The belly. Guess where it has stayed? The belly.
As we women go through our middle years, the proportion of fat to body weight tends to increase, states Harvard Health Publishing. Even if you’re not gaining weight, you might notice your waistline expanding due to visceral fat. I believe that’s the case with me. Atlanta-based endocrinologist Kelly Wood, M.D., states that researchers have found a genetic component to this, “with genetics being responsible for 36 to 47 percent in the difference in fat distribution. There’s no evidence to suggest that this makes it more difficult to lose this weight.” In other words, don’t blame it on genetics. I’ve got to watch what I eat and exercise just like everyone else.
The good news is that visceral fat will often be the first fat you lose.
Two kinds of fat can be responsible for protruding abs: subcutaneous and visceral. Most body fat is subcutaneous, the fat lying just under the skin, the squishy fat you can pinch with your fingers. Visceral (or intra-abdominal) fat is the “hidden fat” beneath the abdominal wall. Visceral fat, also referred to as active fat, is of much more concern because it is a toxic risk. It influences how hormones function in the body and makes proteins called cytokines, which can lead to inflammation, raise blood pressure and cause insulin resistance, placing you at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
Some COVID-19 patients have developed a serious condition called cytokine storm syndrome (CSS), a hyperactive immune response that causes the body to produce elevated levels of cytokines to fight off the virus. The body ends up attacking its own cells and tissues. Visceral fat is a potential risk factor and has been associated with severe cases of COVID-19 .
CT scans and full MRIs are more precise at detecting visceral fat, but these imaging scans are expensive. According to Harvard Health Publishing, 10 percent of a person’s total body fat will be visceral. Measuring 35 inches or more at the waist is a warning sign of visceral fat in women.
Unfortunately, you can’t spot reduce this area. “To get rid of belly fat, you have to get rid of total body fat,” Wood says. That means exercise and a reduction in calories through a healthy, balanced diet. The good news is that visceral fat will often be the first fat you lose.
Here are four lifestyle adjustments to help you whittle your middle:
1. Optimize your exercise. “The best way to lose belly fat is a combination of aerobic exercise [cardio], as well as strength training,” Wood says. “Strength training increases your muscle mass, which increases your metabolism and helps you burn fat. Exercise also keeps the fat from returning. Spot exercises such as sit-ups and crunches will tighten your abdominal muscles but won’t help you lose body fat. The recommended amount of exercise is at least 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes five days per week.”
2. Get carb smart at mealtimes. Eat a healthy, balanced diet with fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of processed carbohydrates.
Limit or avoid:
- Added sugars. Eliminate sugary drinks, sodas and juices and replace them with water. If you have a sweet tooth, eat fruit, like melons and fresh berries.
- Fast foods and fried foods.
- Trans fats found in some packaged foods, baked goods, fried foods, some margarines.
- Carbs, especially refined carbs like sugar, candy, white bread.
- More soluble fiber (such as in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots and barley), which helps slow down digestion.
- Mnounsaturated fatty acids — olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and fish — are helpful in reducing belly fat.
- Omega-3 fats from salmon, sardines and mackerel. “Studies have shown that obese/overweight individuals may see a benefit in the reduction of abdominal fat when fish oil supplements are combined with diet and exercise,” Wood says.
- Protein. A good source of protein at every meal will reduce cravings, boost metabolism and reduce ab fat.
- Green tea. Catechin, an antioxidant found in green tea, may help burn visceral fat. Just don’t add a lot of honey or sugar.
3. Hack your hormones by reducing stress. Stress triggers the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. High cortisol levels increase appetite and contribute to the accumulation of belly fat.
4. Snooze to lose (weight). A lack of sleep also increases cortisol, leading to abdominal fat deposition, Wood says. Too little sleep also causes an increase in ghrelin and a decrease in leptin, two hormones that regulate hunger and can stimulate appetite, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Getting five hours of sleep or less, or sleeping too much (more than eight hours), can cause the accumulation of visceral fat. The sweet spot? Six to eight hours.