Belly fat, also called abdominal or central obesity in its advanced form, is the type of overweight that is the most likely to endanger one’s health. Carrying extra weight in the midsection is associated with a myriad of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases (e.g. diabetes, stroke, heart and arterial disease) as well as a number of cancers, and increased mortality risk. (1) Interestingly, it is estimated that if every adult around average weight in the US reduced their body mass index (BMI) by only one percent, this would result in a reduction of about 100 000 of new cancer cases each year. (1)
Excess belly fat consists of two types of fat storage: subcutaneous, found relatively superficially under the skin, and visceral, found deeper inside the abdomen, surrounding the organs. The dangers of belly fat come from mainly the intra-abdominal fat. The fat cells release a number of chemicals that influence cholesterol levels, affect inflammation regulation, decrease insulin sensitivity, and increase blood pressure.(1)
As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Here are some tips on how to prevent developing an oversized waistline:
Have a look at your dietary habits
Are you eating a nutritious, balanced diet? Or are you indulging in unhealthy snacks a little too often? If you are curious about the state of your nutrient intake (you should be), try logging your food consumption for at least a few days. Using an online app such as Cronometer will give you insight into your dietary habits. Based on the results, adjust your diet as necessary.
Young people don’t necessarily have to exercise to maintain a healthy-sized waistline. However, as we age weight tends to come creeping. The average weight gain for adults is about 1-2 lbs (0.5-1 kg) per year.(2) Uninhibited, over a course of years and decades this can lead to overweight and obesity.
Ideally a healthy exercise routine is established in younger years, since it’s easier continuing a habit than starting a new one after health problems have appeared. A health-maintaining workout routine should consist of regular cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening workouts. Muscle mass is related to resting energy expenditure (i.e. higher muscle mass means more calories burned, even at rest).(3) Keeping your muscles strong and active is one of the best ways to prevent unwanted weight gain in the long term.
Getting enough sleep
It is well known to most that inadequate sleep duration is bad for health, but did you know that it carries similar risks to being overweight or obese? A recent meta-analysis found that sleep deprivation is significantly associated with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and overall mortality.(4)(5)(6) This is bad news for about 40% of Americans who don't get enough sleep each night.(7) With this in mind, making time for sleep is a great time-investment for health.
Minimizing negative stress
Despite its reputation for being bad, not every stressor is bad for us. The way we react to stress depends on our personal stress tolerance as well as the type and intensity of stress. For example, training is one form of stress. When dosed correctly and with adequate rest to recover, training will make us better at what we are training for and give us more resistance to that particular form of stress in the form of increased training tolerance. This can be called positive stress because it makes us perform better.
Negative stress is the type of stress that we should aim to minimize. Unlike positive stress, negative stress can break us down mentally or physically. However, even positive stress can turn into negative stress when the stress level is too high and the recuperation time is insufficient, such as in stress fractures and other overuse injuries. Psychologically, negative stress can also lead to mental health problems.
The role of negative stress in weight gain is two-fold. One; negative psychological stress can bring out poor coping mechanisms such as excess snacking, binging or drinking. Needless to say, this can cause unwanted weight gain. Two; the stress hormone cortisol, elevated during times of stress, may negatively influence one’s risk for obesity.(8)
Unfortunately it's impossible to eliminate all negative stress from our lives. The key is to balance negative stress with time to mentally and physically recover.
Eliminate bad habits: alcohol
Excessive drinking can be harmful to your health in more ways than one. Aside from being associated with increased risk of liver disease, pancreatitis and cancer, alcoholic drinks also contain empty calories, meaning that they are largely devoid of any nutritional value. (9)(10) In other words, alcohol is all calories and no nutrients.
If you have a problem limiting your alcohol intake, you are not alone. One third of Americans report having a drinking problem at some point in their life.(11) Professional help and support is available through in-person and online resources that can help you change your habit and improve your health.
How do I know if my waist is a healthy size?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a waist circumference of >80 cm (31.5 in) for women and >94 cm (37 in) for men is associated with with an increased risk of metabolic complications.(12)
Another often-used indicator of health risk related to body fat is the waist-to-hip ratio. To calculate your waist-to-hip ratio, use a tape measure to measure your waist at its narrowest and the hips (legs together) at their widest. Divide the waist circumference by the hip circumference and you will get your waist-to-hip ratio. According to WHO a waist-to-hip ratio of ≥0.85 for women and ≥0.90 for men carries a substantially increased risk for metabolic complications.(12)
Should you find that your waist size puts you at increased risk, it's better to start making healthy changes sooner rather than later. Trimming a large waistline has numerous health benefits, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attack, dementia, and a number of cancers, to mention some.
The next blog post will offer specific strategies on how to get rid of excess belly fat. If you're looking to reduce your waistline make sure to subscribe and be notified as soon as the next post is up.
8. Bose, M., Oliván, B., & Laferrère, B. (2010). Stress and obesity: The role of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis in metabolic disease. Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Obesity, 16(5), 340–346. Retrieved December 28, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2858344/