“Pot belly,” “love handles,” “spare tire” and “beer belly” are all terms that have been jokingly used to describe the excess fat that accumulates in the abdomen of some men as they age. But truth be told, belly fat is no joke – it can lead to some serious health complications.
Not a Joking Matter
By Rebecca Rochat
The Mayo Clinic reports that belly fat in men can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, insulin resistance, low levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol), metabolic syndrome and sleep apnea.
A glance in the mirror may be a reminder that you have accumulated fat around your middle, but how do you really know if you have too much belly fat? Dr. Gregory Heath, professor and head of the Department of Health and Human Performance at UTC, says the easiest way to find out is to measure your waist. “If you’re a man and your waist circumference is 40 inches or greater, you’re too fat,” Heath says.
Lea Reagan, registered dietician and certified diabetes educator for Memorial’s
Diabetes and Nutrition Center, says that some experts suggest that if a man’s waistline – measured at the belly button, sucked in – is greater than 41 inches, the health risks are the same as having prostate cancer.
While it might be common knowledge that a large belly is a health risk, more insight has been gained about the link between belly fat and health risks.
Men with wide girths are more likely to have accumulated adipose (fat) tissue in two areas, according to Heath. The fat associated with a protruding belly is an intra-abdominal accumulation, or visceral fat, that accumulates in the abdominal cavity and is intended to provide storage for fat as well as to cushion the major internal organs.
The second area is a subcutaneous fat accumulation adjacent to the belly button and over the hips that can be grasped and/or pinched or that wobbles when you jump up and down.
“This (fat tissue) accumulation is due to energy imbalance – the consumption of calories from food/drink in excess of the energy expended through exercise or activity on a daily basis,” explains Heath.
“The accumulation of adipose tissue is an indication of being in positive energy, which is the body’s efficient way of storing energy for future use,” Heath continues. “The problem with our U.S. culture is that we have continual access to food/drink, while physical activity has been engineered out of our daily lives.” The result is excess adiposity, a more technical term for obesity and being overweight.
A person’s genes can affect their chances of being overweight or obese, as well as where extra fat is carried in the body. Reagan explains: “Generally, it is thought that genes, stress hormones (cortisol) and sex hormones play key roles in where excess fat is stored.” However, the most common cause for excess fat is lifestyle.
While both visceral and subcutaneous fat contribute to health problems, experts believe that visceral fat is more dangerous. Visceral fat, also called “deep” fat wraps around the inner organs. It drives up your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even dementia and it is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which boosts the risk of diabetes – than other fat. If you have a large waist or belly, you will have visceral fat.
Losing weight and increasing physical activity are keys to decreasing visceral fat. However, as we age our metabolism slows, needing fewer calories to function, and our activity levels tend to decrease, which decreases muscle mass. Coupled with poor eating habits, these changes in metabolism and activity levels can cause the body to produce more fat, and for many men that fat goes straight to the belly.
The good news is that visceral fat is the first type of fat to be lost when pounds are shed through exercise.
The fastest way to burn belly fat is a combination of weight training and aerobic exercise. This is highlighted in a study published by the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism that compared the effectiveness of two exercise and diet programs.
In one program, participants ate foods based on the traditional food guide pyramid and did cardiovascular exercises four to six days per week, with each workout lasting 30 to 60 minutes. In the other program, participants ate a diet higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates and fat. Their exercise program consisted of alternating days of resistance (weight) training and cardiovascular interval training, six days per week.
Subjects in the second group who lifted weights, did more intense cardio and ate more protein, lost more fat overall, gained two pounds of muscle and dropped abdominal fat by 26 percent, as compared to 13.5 percent in the first group who lost muscle.
So if you want to lose belly fat, what should you do? For starters, eating right is not just a matter of reducing caloric intake, but improving the quality of food in your diet.
Heath’s recommendations include: “Watch what you eat and drink; try to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day; don’t snack; eat one normal size plate, no seconds; minimal intake of refined foods (cookies, cakes, breads); and if you drink alcohol, no more than two drinks per day.”
Mike Geary, author of The Truth about Six Pack Abs, says “I know it’s a cliché, but a flat stomach is made in the kitchen and not the gym.”
As far as the best exercise regimen, forget about doing crunches or sit-ups, which are virtually useless for most people when it comes to losing belly fat. “You cannot spot reduce,” explains Reagan. A full-body training program that includes cardiovascular and resistance exercises will yield the best results. Reagan advises that adults should get two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.
According to Heath, optimum health benefits are provided by increasing to five hours (300 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or two hours and 30 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both. The aerobic activity should be combined with muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups two or more days per week.
Belly fat is stored energy. To get rid of it, you simply have to burn more energy than you eat. Eating right and exercising regularly are the keys to battling the belly bulge. It requires a lifestyle change, not just when you ‘have the time.’
Rebecca Rochat is a resident of Chattanooga. She attended the University of Tennessee where she earned a BS in Child Development and MS degree in Textiles and Merchandising and Design. In addition to freelance writing, Rebecca serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.