Potbelly. Beer belly. Muffin top. Spare tire. Regardless of what you call it, excess belly fat is frustrating.
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For most people, the appearance of excess weight around the midsection is their biggest concern. But obesity medicine specialist W. Scott Butsch, MD, says the bigger issue is the increased health risks that come with belly fat.
The realities of excess belly fat
Abdominal fat is visceral fat, stubborn fat that surrounds the organs deep within the abdomen. Researchers have proved that excess visceral fat increases a person’s risk of metabolic diseases, including:
- Fatty liver disease.
- Heart disease and elevated cholesterol.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome.
- Sleep apnea.
Dr. Butsch says belly fat affects men and women differently: “Men are more likely to have more belly fat (or visceral fat) than premenopausal women. But after menopause, women begin to gain more weight in their abdominal area.”
Clues that your stomach fat is becoming a problem
An easy way to gauge abdominal weight gain is to just pay attention to how your pants fit or the notch on your belt,” says Dr. Butsch. “If things are tight, then that may be an early warning sign of potential health problems.”
Waist circumference correlates to visceral fat. For men, a waist circumference approaching 40 inches indicates increased risk. For women, 35 inches raises a red flag.
How to lose that stubborn belly fat
“Patients want to know why they can’t just do sit-ups to melt away the fat,” says Dr. Butsch. “When you do sit-ups, you’re increasing muscles in the abdomen, but that doesn’t specifically target the visceral fat that is around the organs deeper in the body. Instead, Dr. Butsch recommends these strategies to trim the belly fat:
Focus on weight loss in general
“Weight loss alone can effectively reduce visceral fat,” says Dr. Butsch. “By losing 10% of your body weight, you may lose up to 30% of your body fat.”
Talk to your doctor about a weight-loss method that is right for you. While there are lots of options to choose from, Dr. Butsch recommends you avoid fasting for long periods. Prolonged fasts cause the body to hold onto the visceral fat, making it tougher to lose. If fasting is your jam, an intermittent or time-restricted fasting approach may be more effective for losing belly fat.
Exercise and strength training: A one-two punch
Exercises that increase the heart rate and make you sweat help you lose weight in general — both visceral fat and the subcutaneous fat under the skin. Aerobic exercise burns overall calories and helps you reduce total body fat.
Dr. Butsch says the key to losing abdominal visceral fat seems to lie in a combination approach. He suggests trying 20 minutes of whole-body strength training plus a cardio routine to strengthen muscle cells and increase fat burn.
Ditch the sugar-sweetened drinks
Fructose, or sugar, causes fat cells to mature faster, specifically in the visceral fat. A diet filled with fructose-containing sodas or drinks not only increases your calorie intake, but it impacts how the belly fat develops.
De-stress as often as possible
If you’re feeling stressed out, especially right now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, your body is likely releasing the stress hormone, cortisol, into the bloodstream. This can not only lead to weight gain, but there’s also a strong link between an increase in cortisol and higher amounts of visceral fat.
Do your best to de-stress if you want to whittle your middle. Dr. Butsch states yoga, meditation, therapy and physical activity as ways to dial down your stress level.