It’s one of the most common weight loss questions that we get asked: how do you lose belly fat? Whether you call it ‘middle-aged spread’, ‘beer belly’, or ‘muffin top’ excess weight in this area can be the most challenging to lose. Belly fat also poses specific risks to your health. I’m here to tell you why, and what you can do about it.
HOW TO LOSE BELLY FAT
Many people come to us asking how to reduce fat around the middle. The internet is filled with clickbait ads and headines promising to ‘burn belly fat fast’. But the truth is, a holistic, long-term approach is always going to be the most effective option over crash diets or quick fixes. Here are some of the best clinically-backed methods for reducing belly fat (also known as visceral fat).
THE BEST DIET FOR BELLY FAT
Firstly, work on stabilising your blood sugar levels. To do this, structure meals around a protein source (foods like fish, seafood, eggs, tempeh or organic meat) with moderate amounts of healthy fats (such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, unroasted nuts and seeds) and a variety of vegetables and / or salad. Minimise your intake of sugar, starchy carbohydrates and ultra processed foods, that cause spikes and peaks in blood sugar. Not only do fluctuating blood sugar levels cause weight gain in general, they also promote the release of the stress hormone cortisol which is strongly associated with increased visceral fat.
Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol make you significantly more likely to store fat around the middle. Regular meditation practice can help to lower cortisol levels so aim to work in a daily practice, even if just for 10-15 minutes a day. If you’re not sure where to start, meditation app MEYA uses sound wave therapy to help guide you into a meditative state.
Other de-stressing techniques include deep breathing, which helps to switch your nervous system from a sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ state, to a parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state.
Adaptogenic supplements – essentially anti-stressor plants – such as the Ayurvedic herb Ashwagandha, have also been shown to help lower cortisol levels. Try Nutri Advanced’s Ashwagandha 500mg. (If you’re taking any medication it’s important to ensure there are no interactions between supplements and your medications. If in doubt, check with your doctor).
CUT DOWN ON ALCOHOL & STOP SMOKING
It’s called a ‘beer belly’ for a reason. Drinking is associated with weight gain for a number of reasons. Not only do alcoholic drinks often provide high amounts of sugar and calories, alcohol itself slows down fat burning. Drinking too much can also lead to overeating. Many people find themselves more likely to eat the foods they’d usually avoid, including highly processed foods. The government advises that we don’t regularly consume more than 14 units (6-7 drinks) a week.
Smoking should be on the no-list, too. Observational studies have shown that while smokers did not show significant difference in overall fat mass compared with non-smokers, they did have more visceral fat.
Lack of quality sleep can increase cortisol levels and have been linked to increased visceral fat. One study showed that adults under 40 who slept five hours or less a night had significantly more visceral fat after five years. Another study showed that a lack of sleep led to a 9% increase in abdominal fat and an 11% increase in abdominal visceral fat, compared to a control group. Aim for the recommended standard of a solid eight hour a night. Monitoring your sleep using a WHOOP strap or Oura ring can provide valuable insights and guidance on how to get more.
WHY DO YOU NEED TO LOSE BELLY FAT?
Now that we’ve covered how you lose, it, you might be wondering just why it’s so important to keep your visceral fat low. The pandemic served as a stark reminder of the extent to which being overweight can be a threat to our health. Evidence shows that being obese doubles our risk of being hospitalised with Covid-19 and that’s not the only health risk that comes with being overweight.
Research from University College London found that people over 65 who are obese have a 31% increased risk of dementia later in life. Storing excess fat around the middle can be particularly harmful to health as it can increase our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and stroke.
WHY IS BELLY FAT SO DANGEROUS?
We know that being overweight poses health risks, but why is visceral fat in particular such a concern? Subcutaneous fat lies beneath the skin, whereas visceral ‘belly’ fat that sits under the abdominal wall surrounding vital organs like our liver, stomach and intestines. We used to believe that body fat simply functioned as energy storage for the body, but we now know that different types of fat affect the body in different ways. Having excess visceral fat can trigger low-level systemic inflammation, one of the main reasons that it is linked to an increased risk of disease and faster ageing.
Many studies have shown that raised levels of visceral fat increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases. One study showed that ‘women who carried more weight around their middles (measured by waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio, or waist-to-height ratio) had a 10% to 20% greater risk of heart attack than women who were just heavier over all’.
HAVE I GOT TOO MUCH BELLY FAT?
So how can you tell if you need to work on reducing your visceral fat? The BMI (body mass index) measurement has limitations and won’t be much help here. It doesn’t take into account factors such as high muscle percentage or weight distribution. As a result, the readings of professional rugby players and body builders with a high muscle mass can show them falling into the ‘obese’ category when they are anything but.
Many health experts now agree that our waist circumference is a more accurate indicator of health risk when it comes to visceral fat. Regardless of your height or BMI, it’s advisable to lose weight if your waist is greater than 94cm (37in) for men and 80cm (31.5in) for women. You are considered to be very high risk of serious health issues as a man if your waist measurement is above 102cm (40in) or 88cm (34.5in) for women. If your waist circumference is greater than this, you should see your doctor as soon as you’re able to and take action to address this.
Check out my guide to measuring yourself at home if you need some tips.
WHAT’S CAUSING IT?
STRESS AND BELLY FAT
Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol are linked to increased fat storage around the middle, which is why belly fat is often linked to stress. Are you working long hours? Moving house? Getting divorced? Or tackling other stressful life challenges? Unfortunately, this could be contributing to your abdominal weight gain. Abdominal fat cells have four times more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat, which is why belly fat can result. Cortisol levels also increase as we age. This is one of the reasons why weight around the middle can increase as we get older. You can learn more from this study on stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women.
Studies have shown that menopausal declines in oestrogen can accelerate fat accumulation, particularly visceral or abdominal fat. If you’re a female in your mid 40s onwards the menopause could be contributing to your weight challenges.
If you feel the menopause could be contributing to your weight gain, there are solutions. Tests can be run to assess your levels of hormones, including oestrogen. A good doctor can prescribe a tailored hormone replacement protocol to elevate your levels. This can help to ease symptoms of the menopause and make managing your weight easier.
We work with many women to support them in managing their weight before, during and after the menopause. We work closely with a fantastic functional medicine doctor who supports our clients with hormone treatment where relevant.
Some approaches tend to be spoken about a lot in relation to belly fat loss. In truth, they’re unlikely to be effective.
Ab exercises will strengthen muscles, but endless sit ups alone won’t be enough to reduce fat in this area. Strengthening your core is important, but it takes more than crunches to tackle visceral fat. However, regular exercise is important and has many health benefits. Find something you enjoy and aim to do it at least three times a week for 30 minutes.
Clients sometimes ask about surgical options, but they are not an effective solution. Liposuction is only able to remove subcutaneous fat – the fat that sits just under the skin. It cannot remove fat that sits under the abdominal muscles wall, surrounding the vital organs. Therefore it’s ineffective at reducing visceral belly fat.
WE CAN HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT AND REDUCE YOUR VISCERAL FAT
Are you looking to reduce your visceral fat? We can help you overcome your weight challenges, reach your happy weight and maintain it long term. Book yourself in for a complimentary 25 mintue call or contact us and a member of our team will be in touch soon. We can talk through your challenges and explore whether one of our Intelligent Weight Loss programmes is right for you.