When we were first getting to know each other, I told him that I could tell how healthy a person was just by looking at them. He assumed I was sneaking peeks at what people were eating at restaurants, or snacking on as they walked down the street. But I eventually proved it to him by guessing my new clients' health on our very first session, merely by looking at how much weight they carried around their midsection.
Belly fat isn't the only indicator of a healthy lifestyle, but in recent years, researchers have discovered that not only is excess weight around the midsection a good indicator of overall health, but belly fat may be one of the biggest dangers to your health overall. Excess belly fat is linked to increased risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High cholesterol
In fact, one study found that people carrying excess belly fat were over 30% more likely to develop certain types of cancer!
Belly fat is so dangerous mainly because of its location. Most of the fat we carry - the kind we can see on our arms and thighs - is subcutaneous fat which lies just beneath the skin. This is the fat you can actually grab a hold of and pinch. While some of this fat can also settle around the midsection, the fat you really need to be concerned about is visceral fat. You can't grab on to visceral fat; it's stored around and between the organs in your abdomen. Belly fat is visceral fat.
While most people know that extra carbohydrates are stored in the body as fat, most also mistakenly believe that fat is a passive substance, just sitting in your body, waiting to be converted into energy. The second half of that statement is true. Fat is converted into energy in your body (although only when you aren't feeding your body more fuel, and starvation is rare in the United States), but fat is also active within the body. Fat cells mutate and divide and secrete hormones and chemicals. In healthy people, these hormones are often totally benign, triggering satiety after a meal, regulating insulin, and helping to burn fat. If you're carrying extra visceral fat, you're producing more of these hormones, and since visceral fat sits so close to vital organs, those hormones and chemicals can wreak havoc on them. For example, excess fat in your blood is a major contributor to fatty liver disease, which affects the efficiency of your liver and is a major risk factor for Type II diabetes.
If you are carrying extra weight around your middle (and most people are), here are a few tips to help you live a longer, healthier life by eliminating excess belly fat.
- Take your measurements: The amount of visceral fat you're carrying isn't directly related to how much you actually weigh. While it is an effective marker in younger people, in older adults visceral fat can increase while your weight remains exactly the same, largely as a result of the fact that older people tend to move around less. One measurement to keep an eye out for is your waist to hip ratio. Your waist should always be smaller than your hips by a few inches. More specifically, if your current waist circumference is 40" (for men) or 35" (for women) you are at significant risk from carrying excess visceral belly fat.
- Eat a healthy, high fiber diet: The biggest mistake people make when trying to lose weight is cutting back on calories by skipping snacks or meals. Do not do this!! You want to keep your metabolism going all day, and skipping meals slows it down. Aim for 3 meals and 2 healthy snacks every day. Your body takes more time digesting fiber, so stock up on fibrous veggies. Also, don't skip breakfast! Studies show that people who eat breakfast have a faster metabolism than those who don't. They don't call it the most important meal of the day for nothing.
- Exercise: This is also pretty obvious. To lose excess weight, you need to get moving. Luckily, scientists believe that visceral fat is pretty easy to lose (this is why you may feel like your clothes fit better when you start exercising, before you're visibly slimmer). 30 to 45 minutes a day of moderate to intense exercise (visceral fat responds to both) should do it, but if you're in the danger zone (#1 above), aim for 60 minutes.
- Chill out: Researchers believe that stress is linked to the storage of visceral fat. Try, as much as possible, to distress. Also, make sure you get enough - but not too much - sleep. In studies, people who get less than 5 but more than 8 hours of sleep have generally had more visceral fat than people who get between 6 and 8 hours.