For some people, the appearance of excess weight around their midsection is a major concern.
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But psychologist and registered dietitian David Creel, PhD, says the bigger issue is the increased health risks that come with belly fat.
The size of your waist is related to subcutaneous fat underneath your skin and the visceral fat surrounding your organs. Although subcutaneous fat may be what we notice when we look in the mirror, visceral fat is most harmful.
Researchers have proved that excess fat around our organs increases the risk of metabolic diseases, including:
Excess weight also increases the risk of sleep apnea, joint pain and different forms of cancer.
For those assigned male at birth (AMAB), a waist circumference approaching 40 inches indicates increased risk. For those assigned female at birth (AFAB), 35 inches raises a red flag.
But unfortunately, losing weight around our midsection is not as easy as doing crunches a few times a week.
“Patients want to know why they can’t just do sit-ups to melt away the fat,” says Dr. Creel. “When you do sit-ups, you’re strengthening muscles in the abdomen, but that doesn’t specifically target the fat or loose skin around our stomach. It’s also important to understand that where we gain or lose fat is influenced by our genetics.”
Although genetics can be an obstacle, and we can’t spot reduce our fat, Dr. Creel says there are still strategies we can use to trim belly fat.
Exercises that increase your heart rate and make you sweat help you lose weight in general — both visceral fat and the fat under your skin. Aerobic exercise burns overall calories and helps you reduce total body fat, especially if you make changes in your diet at the same time.
Dr. Creel says the key to losing visceral fat seems to lie in a combination approach. He suggests building a cardio routine of at least 150 minutes per week while adding two to three days per week of whole-body strength training.
“Any added muscle will increase our calorie burn at rest, whereas cardiovascular exercise will give our metabolism a boost during and for a short time after exercise,” Dr. Creel explains. “Exercise may also have indirect positive benefits on weight by helping us sleep better and manage emotional eating.”
Consuming too much added sugar is associated with excess weight that’s likely to accumulate around your waist. Sugar-sweetened beverages and drinking too much fruit juice can be particularly harmful.
“When we drink our calories, especially with soda or juice, we don’t feel as full or satisfied compared to chewing those calories,” notes Dr. Creel. “For instance, you may eat three oranges for the same amount of calories as a large glass of orange juice and feel much fuller for a longer period of time.”
Watch how much of these liquid calories you consume and try to cut back where you can.
If you’re feeling stressed out, your body is likely releasing the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. While this can lead to weight gain, there’s a strong link between an increase in cortisol and higher amounts of visceral fat.
“While cortisol levels play a role, the bigger issue can be that when we’re more stressed, we tend to be less mindful of our eating,” says Dr. Creel. “It is common for people to turn to food for comfort or to distract themselves from stressful life circumstances.”
Eating foods high in fiber like chickpeas, lentils and bananas can help you feel fuller longer.
Those foods contain a high amount of soluble fiber, which can slow down the passage of food from the stomach to the intestine by dissolving in water and forming a gummy gel.
Also, building a well-balanced diet that includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables leads to more fiber in our diets.
“If you’re eating foods that are more fibrous, you’re typically eating less processed foods in general,” says Dr. Creel.
Research shows that if you’re a heavy drinker, you may have more belly fat than social or casual drinkers.
In addition to the extra calories you consume by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, alcohol can lower your inhibitions.
“You may have wings with your beer or cheese with your wine,” says Dr. Creel. “Yes, those things go together, but you’re consuming extra calories and may not be paying attention to what or how much you’re eating.”
If you have more than two drinks a day, try cutting back on how much alcohol you consume.
Make sure you add protein to your meals. Options include meat, fish, eggs, dairy and beans.
Protein helps keep you feeling satiated, lowers hunger hormone levels and may even help you eat less at your next meal, studies show.
“We don’t have to be on high protein diets as much as we need to add adequate protein that’s spread throughout the day,” says Dr. Creel.
Dr. Creel also says you should aim to add protein to your snacks. “That’s when we tend to overeat,” he notes. “Try having a Greek yogurt or string cheese, which can make you feel more satisfied.”
Instead of eating white bread, pasta, chips and crackers — processed carbs that have little fiber and can cause your blood sugar to spike — opt for complex carbs like 100% whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice and beans.
“Balance, variety and moderation are still important,” explains Dr. Creel. “Eating lean proteins, lots of vegetables, moderate amounts of fruits, moderate amounts of whole grains and low-fat dairy, still works for the majority of people.”
A good night’s sleep is vital. It can boost your immune system, improve your mood and increase productivity — among other things.
When it comes to belly fat and weight loss, our sleep can affect ghrelin and leptin, appetite-stimulating hormones.
“One thing that we know is when we don’t sleep well or we’re sleep-deprived, it can actually impact hunger hormones,” says Dr. Creel. “There’s actually a biochemical response to sleep deprivation, which makes us want to eat more.”
Aim for seven hours or more of sleep a night. Prioritize sleep by turning off electronics an hour before bedtime and try having a consistent sleep and wake time.
Studies show that by keeping a food diary and logging your exercise, you’re setting yourself up for success.
“For people who are trying to lose weight, if they self-monitor their food and exercise, they tend to do better,” says Dr. Creel. “We don’t know all the reasons why, but what it probably comes down to is awareness and being intentional about our health behaviors.”
By tracking what you eat, you’re more likely to make smarter decisions. You might rethink eating those potato chips and turn to carrots as a snack instead.
And using fitness trackers, whether it’s a smart watch or an app, can motivate you to lace up those sneakers and take a walk around the block.
Guilty of snacking mindlessly while bingeing your fave TV show?
Then you might be looking for ways to curb those late-night cravings.
While there isn’t much evidence showing intermittent fasting is better than other weight loss methods, Dr. Creel says he has patients who successfully manage their weight by limiting the hours they eat during the day.
For example, you can fast for 16 hours (typically overnight) and eat all of your food within an eight-hour period during the day.
“Some people find it helpful to have a cutoff time for eating, especially at night,” says Dr. Creel. “Some people will stop eating after 6 or 7 p.m., because they know nighttime is when they overconsume and engage in mindless eating.”
Dr. Creel suggests talking to your doctor about which weight-loss method is right for you. You may even want to talk to a registered dietitian who can help you figure out where you’re struggling.
“Although we can’t precisely target where we lose every pound of weight, it’s important to remember that reducing our calorie intake and regular exercise effectively reduces visceral fat,” says Dr. Creel. “By losing 5% to 10% of your body weight, you can improve blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, mobility and sexual function.”
And whatever method you try, Dr. Creel advises that developing a routine, being consistent and practicing patience can help keep you motivated.
“Don’t forget about the benefits of your new behaviors, even if you’re not seeing a lot of weight loss,” he encourages. “Small changes can lead to significant health benefits. But it can take time, so patience is important.”