Perils of belly fat a growing concern
Dr. Mehmet Oz got raked over the coals at Capitol Hill recently, as senators accused him of peddling bogus weight-loss drugs. The subcommittee on consumer protection, product safety, and insurance called out the celebrity doctor, who is said to make about US$4 million a year, for his shameless endorsement of products like green coffee beans, which don’t have any scientific evidence to support their supposed “fat-busting” effects.
The panel was looking at false advertising for weight-loss products, with Sen. Claire McCaskill saying Oz was giving people false hope.
What’s indisputable is that some people will try almost anything to shed pounds. Despite the fact that Hollywood has done a fine job of skewing beauty ideals, belly fat really is something to worry about. And Vancouver health experts agree that no “revolutionary” supplement is going to help people get rid of it.
“It’s not just a cosmetic effect; it starts taking on a hormonal and life-reducing effect,” says sports-medicine doctor Bill Mackie of belly fat, which is also known as central adiposity. “Belly fat consists of subcutaneous fat, which sits underneath the skin, and visceral fat, which is fat surrounding your organs….It’s an area that’s quite dangerous to have fat, because the fat that accumulates has easy access to portal circulation, which goes into the liver. It secretes substances that are not good for your health.
"There are five things that visceral fat is associated with: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease,” as well as other forms of dementia, adds Mackie. “It’s very serious stuff.”
All the abdominal crunches in the world are not going to eliminate or reduce visceral fat. Registered dietitian Karlene Karst explains that harbouring excess fat in the midsection has less to do with fitness levels than the role that nutrition, blood sugar, and insulin all play. The human body is designed to do one of three things with the food it consumes: burn some of the calories as immediate energy, store what’s not utilized immediately in its 30 billion fat cells, or store some of the excess sugars as short-term energy, called glycogen, within the muscles that the body can draw on after exercise.
“Our body has a very limited ability to store sugar, and after our capacity is full, it converts all the carbohydrates, or sugar, we eat into fat,” says Karst, author of The Full-Fat Solution: Good Fats for a Lean Body, a Healthy Heart, Smart Children, and Delicious Food. “Because of the overconsumption of sugar in our diet, our pancreas needs to pump out a hormone called insulin. Insulin’s main job is to shuttle the sugar from our food into our cells to use for energy….Insulin promotes fat storage. So excess sugar equals excess insulin, which equals excess fat storage, which equals belly fat.”
Over time, the pancreas will no longer be able to keep up with the pushing of excessive insulin, and cells develop insulin resistance, also known as pre-diabetes.
Things like green coffee beans aren’t the kind of magic bullet that Dr. Oz makes them out to be.
“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Karst says. “When it comes to our health, we need to make lifestyle changes.”
She recommends eating five to six small meals per day. “Fuelling your body every two to three hours will keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable, preventing the surge in insulin and accompanying storage of fat,” Karst says, adding that each meal or snack should consist of a fibrous carbohydrate (such as whole grains, legumes, and some fruits and vegetables), protein, and a healthy fat (such as walnuts or cold-water, fatty fish). Plus, move your body every day for at least 30 minutes.
“This doesn’t mean you need to join the gym or do difficult classes but be physical enough to get your heart rate moving and build some muscle,” she says. “Muscle on the body helps to burn calories and fat.”
North Vancouver personal trainer Tera Liley says that proper nutrition is the crucial starting point when it comes to losing belly fat. “You can never out-train a bad diet,” Liley says in a phone interview.
She starts out by calculating people’s basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of energy the body uses while at rest, then determines how many calories they need per day, depending on their activity level. Liley says it helps to keep a food journal or use an app to track meals for two weeks to get a good sense of how much you’re eating and to identify those times you tend to overeat, such as when you’re tired or stressed.
“What I’ve noticed is that almost all of us underestimate the number of calories we eat,” she says. “We’re rushing; we’re hungry; we’re eating standing up. When people start being accountable for what they’re eating and take notice of what they’re eating, that’s the first major part of getting rid of belly fat.”
From there, although everyone’s goals, pre-existing fitness levels, and needs are different, Liley often suggests resistance training three times a week plus high-intensity cardiovascular exercise twice a week. She also says to make time for fun physical activities, like biking or playing tennis.
“You don’t want to make it feel like it’s all work,” she says. “Find what you enjoy doing.”
If the thought of overhauling your pantry and fitting in more exercise seems daunting, Liley advises taking things gradually.
“Think of two things you can change right now and work on those,” she says. “Then work on two other things so that you’re not taking on too much.”
Mackie, meanwhile, encourages people to choose foods that have a low glycemic index and to avoid processed foods. When it comes to fitting in regular physical activity, he reminds of the need to have it work with your schedule.
“It’s a struggle for everybody, especially when you get pressed for time,” Mackie says. “For myself, I had a hard time exercising after work….I find it helps me to get up a little bit earlier and be active before work.
“You don’t have to be draconian about it,” he adds, “but you can make small choices.”