As I approach middle age, I have given up blaming my belly fat on pregnancy, particularly because my youngest is now 14. Over the years, I have made attempts to rid myself of the excess fat around my waistline. I’ve done sit-ups, tried running, and there it sits, not budging a bit. While I long for the rock hard abs of a Victoria’s Secret model, I have learned that getting rid of a belly bulge is important for more than just vanity's sake.
Even if, like me, you’re not heavy, belly fat can affect your health. Many people don’t realize that excess abdominal fat called visceral fat — which surrounds your organs — churns out stress hormones like cortisol and inflammatory substances called cytokines that affect the body’s production of insulin. “Belly fat is on the outside, visceral fat is caked around our internal organs,” said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, medical director of Integrative Medicine at Memorial Healthcare in Hollywood. Visceral fat can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and some cancers. “Belly fat is a killer. We don’t see it as that, but it is,” Mehta said.
Around me, I see my peers struggling with belly fat as they age, too. A trim waistline becomes more of challenge as we grow older because our bodies change how they gain and lose weight. Muscle mass typically diminishes as we get older, while fat increases. On top of that, for many women the increase in belly fat may be related to menopause. With menopause comes a drop in estrogen, which changes how the body distributes fat and makes women more prone to gaining weight in their tummy.
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For a variety of reasons, belly fat can be the hardest weight to lose. Frustrated, some people are turning to plastic surgery and newfangled fat-ridding devices. But there are ways to reduce belly fat through diet, exercise, sleep and stress management if we approach it with discipline and knowledge.
To start with, what we put in our mouth can be critical. That belly fat is never going to budge if we don’t change our eating habits. Experts suggest we slim down our portion sizes and order smaller meals or share larger ones when we eat out. We also need to rethink what goes down the hatch.
Sugar and its many forms have to go, said Laura Powell, field marketing manager for Nutrition Smart in Miami Lakes. Sugar can sneak into our diet, often through beverages including alcohol, sodas, juices — even our Starbucks coffee with syrups. Powell suggested that we replace sugar and packaged or processed foods with more fruits and vegetables.
A big contributor to visceral fat is a high intake of saturated fat, the kind in meat and dairy. Cut out the red meat and cheese. Instead go for healthy fat in moderation, Powell said. Healthier fats have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. That category includes monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and avocados and specific types of polyunsaturated fats found in walnuts, sunflower seeds, and fatty fish like salmon. Powell is a big fan of coconut oil. Several studies have shown that just by adding coconut oil (a medium chain triglyceride) to your diet, you can boost metabolism and reduce appetite. Some people take it by the spoonful, while others cook with it or put it in smoothies, she said.
She also recommended eating more probiotics. Belly fat has to do with inflammation, and probiotics can help with that, she said. Foods like kefir or yogurt have probiotics in them as do fermented foods like pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut. “The added benefit is that probiotics can reduce stress,” she said.
Exercise also is key to losing belly fat, yet many of us are doing the wrong workout. Apparently, I have been misguided in thinking I can lose a bulging belly by doing stomach crunches. Fitness experts say we can tone abdominal muscles with crunches or other targeted abdominal exercises, but just doing those exercises isn’t enough. Ellen Hofmann, a South Florida private pilates instructor (ellensmatpilates.com), teaches mat pilates, an exercise program that will tone our tummies and strengthen the muscles but not trim the fat, she explained. Hofmann said we need functional exercises that use the muscles in our core — abdominals, back, pelvic, oblique. However, we also need cardio and aerobic activity to target fat loss. “Once that fat is gone, the muscles will show through,” Hofmann said.
The ideal workout is a combination of weight or resistance training and cardiovascular exercise for a bare minimum of 150 minutes a week, Mehta said. “Do something you enjoy such as biking, water aerobics, Zumba. . . . There is such a big variety of things you can do apart from getting on a treadmill.”
Fitness guru Ellen Latham said most people don’t realize their exercise routine isn’t working on belly fat. In fact, she had been teaching pilates in Davie for many years when she discovered her customers were toning but their belly bulge wouldn’t go away. That led her to develop The Orange Theory Workout, rapidly expanding internationally. The concept is interval training aimed at burning belly fat: What that looks like is a short period of pushing yourself to the point of being uncomfortable, followed by a short return to a normal state of exercise. In total the goal is 12 to 20 minutes of uncomfortable, she said.
Latham said research and science have shown her what doesn’t work: Isolated abdominal exercises (multi-joint exercises are more effective), steady cardio (a change of speed and intensity is more effective) and the same daily workout (changing it up is better). “Our muscles get accustomed to doing the same exercises, and when you’re not challenging them, you stop burning as much fat,” Latham explained.
Our sedentary lifestyle factors into our excess abdominal fat, too, she noted. Not only do we need to get up and move throughout the day, we also need to keep our stress levels low. With the stress hormone cortisol linked to visceral fat, having too much stress makes it harder to drop unwanted pounds, especially from your middle.
Clearly, there is no fast and easy way to get rid of stubborn belly fat, Mehta said. “The best way is to take a comprehensive approach and give it your commitment.”
10 TIPS FOR LOSING BELLY FAT
▪ Change up your exercise routine regularly.
▪ Aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.
▪ Do a combination of weight/resistance training and cardio/high intensity training.
▪ Eat more natural foods like fruits and vegetables.
▪ Follow a low-calorie diet that is high in fiber and low in carbohydrates and sugar.
▪ Stay away from packaged foods, partially hydrogenated oils and enriched flours.
▪ Reduce alcohol consumption.
▪ Keep your stress levels down.
▪ Get a good night’s sleep (aim for 7 to 8 hours).
▪ Get up and move throughout the day.