“Abdominal” fat (also known as “visceral fat”) is not a cosmetic issue. Research now indicates that the more fat we store around our middle, the greater the risk of serious disease.
Why Do We Store Fat In The First Place?
We store fat on our body when our calorie intake exceeds our calorie expenditure. To put it another way, if we eat no more calories than we burn, we store no fat.
NOTE: For an explanation of how surplus calories – from dietary fat, protein or carbohydrate – are stored as body fat.
What Factors Determine Where We Store Fat?
Gender, hormones and genetic inheritance are the key determinants as to where fat (meaning excess calories) are stored.
Gender is important as men tend to have an “apple” shape, while women develop a “pear” shape. This difference in fat distribution occurs because the male hormone testosterone predisposes men to accumulate fat around their abdomen rather than on their hips and thighs, while the female hormone estrogen causes fat to be stored around the pelvic region, hips, butt and thighs. However, as estrogen levels reduce during and after menopause, women also store fat around their abdomen and their shape becomes more ‘masculine’.
Hormones also affect how fat is distributed. For example, in one study, men who were given estrogen started to develop the classic female “pear” shape. Other health studies have shown that visceral fat can increase as a result of stress, which triggers extra secretion of the hormone cortisol. Excessive cortisol, it appears, stimulates the storage of fat around the middle.
Genes are another major influence on body shape and fat distribution. Each person is genetically programmed to store fat in differing proportions around the body. Thus while some individuals tend to store fat around their face and neck, others develop fatty tissue on their shoulders, arms, ankles or feet. But remember, unless we eat more calories than we burn, we do not store any fat. Our genetic inheritance also determines which fatty deposit is burned first, when our calorie intake falls below our calorie expenditure.
Abdominal Fat Poses Extra Health Risks
Abdominal obesity is now considered to be an independent risk factor for several diseases such as: high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. As a result, some experts now think that waist-measurement is more important than body mass index in predicting future weight-related disease, at least among people with a body mass index (BMI) of 34 or less.
Other Risk Factors
The health risks associated with excessive abdominal fat are increased for anyone with a family history of premature death, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, high blood sugar, respiratory problems, or anyone who smokes.
What is A Healthy Waist Measurement?
The obvious sign of a fat belly is a large waistline. Official guidelines state that the maximum size for a healthy waist in men with a BMI of 25-34 is 40 inches, and in women, 35 inches. For people with BMI 19-24, the health risk is higher if waist size is larger than hip size.
How to Prevent Abdominal Fat
As stated above, an obese stomach is no more than excess energy stored around the middle. So the obvious way to prevent a fat waistline is to balance energy intake with energy expenditure.
How to Reduce Abdominal Fat
If you already have a fat belly, your only option is to follow a calorie-reduced diet plan, while increasing your physical activity. This will force your body to burn its stored fat as fuel. But don’t forget that you cannot control which pockets of fat are burned first. So even though you may have a large amount of abdominal fat and only a small amount around your face, your body may decide to reduce your facial fat first. Or, it may burn off some of the fat from your stomach area, then some from your face, then more from your belly, then some from your thighs or arms, and so on. The point is, reducing fat from your middle can be a slow process and you must be patient, especially if you have a natural apple-shape.
Post-menopausal women often find themselves gaining weight without any change in their eating habits. This extra weight is often stored around their middle due to a decline in estrogen production. There are two separate issues here: the weight gain itself, and where it ends up, that is around the middle. The former may only be stopped by reducing calorie intake – don’t forget, as we age, our calorie needs fall due to loss of muscle tissue – while the latter cannot be prevented. Without sufficient estrogen, more fat will inevitably be stored around the middle.
Does Exercise Alone Reduce Abdominal Fat?
Taking more physical exercise is an important way of improving general health, but not because of its direct impact on the fat around your belly. It takes about 9 hours of rapid walking to burn the equivalent of one pound of body fat, so exercise alone is not an efficient method of losing fat. Nor can you “target” your stomach fat by doing hours of ab exercises. Exercise simply builds muscle – it does not “convert” fat into muscle. However, tighter muscles do help to “pull in” fatty bulges, so exercise can help to give you an improved “tighter” look.
Other Contributors To Central Obesity
Some lifestyle habits encourage the development of abdominal obesity. Typical bad habits include: over consumption of takeouts and excessive alcohol intake. Takeouts are notoriously high in fat and sodium, while drinking 2 glasses (12 fl oz) of beer a day adds up to 110,000 calories a year – the equivalent of 31 pounds of body fat tissue.
If you are a comfort-eater, don’t worry – comfort-eating is perfectly natural and won’t automatically lead to weight gain. But you need to choose the right foods, otherwise your stomach will definitely get fatter. Better food options include: fruit, vegetables, whole grain sandwiches and whole grain cereals. Unhelpful choices include: cookies, cakes and chips. When it comes to add-ons and desserts, be moderate. A teaspoon of mayonnaise, butter or sour cream on your food is fine; 2-3 tablespoons is asking for trouble. Eating just two pats (5g each) of butter per day adds up to 7 pounds of body fat per year. Desserts can be equally calorific. Although fresh fruit, sorbets, or low-fat ice cream are fine, chocolate cake, cheesecake or luxury ice cream is asking for a fat tummy, especially if cream is added. Basically, you can have a flat belly or a delicious high-calorie dessert, but not both. The choice is yours.