The skinny on belly fat — and how to get rid of it.
Are you intrigued by those Internet ads claiming to know "the secret to shedding belly fat" or "the one trick to losing belly fat"? If so, you're not alone. Americans spend countless hours and billions of dollars trying anything and everything to attain a flat stomach.
But is there really a magic bullet — a fast and easy way to get rid of stubborn belly fat — as so many ads and commercials claim?
In short, no. (Yeah, we were bummed to hear that too.)
But, there are ways to banish belly fat — if you’re willing to make the effort.
Two experts from Rush, Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, an endocrinologist with the Rush University Prevention Center, and Sheila Dugan, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, help guide you through the changes you need to make to lose that belly fat for good.
First of all, what is belly fat?
There are different types of fat:
- Subcutaneous fat: the looser fat that lets you "pinch an inch" and can accumulate just under the skin
- Intramuscular fat: fat found within the skeletal muscles
- Visceral fat: fat packed between your abdominal organs (stomach, liver, kidneys, etc.), which is what we call intra-abdominal or belly fat
Is there really ‘one trick’ to losing belly fat?
When ads claim a "one trick" solution, remember that their main objective is to sell their product rather than to help you. Good marketing means one message, because it is hard to follow too many things at once. So they focus on one fad, and that tickles your curiosity and you click on the link to go their website.
So, no, there's not. But here's what you can do:
Start simple: Typically there are many things you may need to improve to lose belly fat. But start by focusing on changing or improving just one thing. Then, once you conquer that first objective, you can move on to the next thing, and so on.
Target sugar: One good place to begin improving your food choices is to eliminate sugary drinks — and not just soda, but juices. Sugar increases belly fat and fiber reduces belly fat; thus when you're juicing fruits, you're removing the fiber, leaving pure sugar. So one quick fix, a very concrete fix, would be eliminating sugary drinks.
Replacing sugary beverages with water will help dramatically cut down your sugar intake, and then once you've taken that step, you can figure out how to cut down on foods that are high in sugar.
Front-load your meal: Start your meal, especially your largest meal, with seasoned vegetables, be it vegetable soup or the vegetables on your entrée plate. And remember that vegetables should always comprise at least half of your plate and be a mix of starchy (like potatoes) and nonstarchy ones (your leafy greens, broccoli, etc.).
Eating the vegetables first will leave less room for other foods that aren't as healthy, because vegetable fiber is filling.
And re-think dessert: If you have a sweet tooth and need to put that final accent to your meal, eat an apple, melon or fresh berries. Just remember, fruit is not a substitute for vegetables.
Commit to a physical lifestyle: The single most important thing people can do to prevent the buildup of belly fat and get rid of existing belly fat is commit to physical activity, and better yet, a physical lifestyle.
For both men and women, the first fat you lose when you exercise is visceral fat.
In a way, moderate-intensity physical activity is that "magic pill" a lot of people are looking for, because the health benefits go beyond keeping your waistline trim: Not only can it reduce your risk of cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart attacks, but studies have shown that physical activity can significantly improve the moods of patients with major depressive disorders.
Move around, fidget: Here's something else most people probably don't know: Fidgeting is good for you. It's considered a nonexercise physical activity, and it's an important way to burn energy. You get more health benefits if, in addition to exercising, you are a more fidgety, more active person the rest of the day. This means gesturing while you're talking, tapping your foot, just moving around.
And try not to sit too much: Studies have shown that people who sit eight to nine hours a day, even if they exercise the recommended 150 minutes per week, do not get the same benefits of exercising as people who are more active throughout the day.
If you have to sit most of the day for your job, try to find some ways to move:
- Take small breaks throughout the day to walk around
- Use your lunch hour to take a longer walk
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator, if possible
- Do stretching exercises at your desk
- Just do your best to move around as much as you can
Redefine 'rest': Having an active hobby — and if you don't already have one, developing one — is important. Get engaged in some kind of sport, whether it's a group activity or something you can do alone. Essentially, if an activity is pleasant to you, you'll continue to do it.
If your leisure time involves sitting around on the sofa or in a chair, you might actually be offsetting the positive health effects of exercising even if you're working out regularly.
Unfortunately, the general understanding of rest is relaxing in front of TV or dining out — what we call "passive rest." But really, our rest should consist of sleep, and our leisure time should consist of fun physical activity, which is active rest.
Statistics suggest that out of 900 months in his life, the average man in the U.S. spends approximately 198 months watching TV, five months complaining about his boss, and five months waiting on hold.
Think of the other things you could do with those 208 months of your life. You could find activities that are better for your health and will help keep the belly fat away.
Don't rely on sit-ups to give you a six-pack: Unfortunately, sit-ups and crunches can't eliminate visceral fat directly. You can't reduce fat from specific parts of your body by exercising that body part; our bodies simply don't work that way.
With sit-ups or other abdominal exercises, you're toning the abdominal muscles but not burning intra-abdominal fat. The key is to lower your overall body fat with moderate-intensity physical activity and a healthy diet; when you reduce your total body fat, you'll also be reducing your belly fat.
So if you want to do abdominal exercises, make them part of your fitness routine. Just don't treat them as a substitute for the recommended 150 minutes of weekly moderate-intensity physical activity.
Develop more muscle: While sit-ups can't "target" belly fat, what they can do is help you burn calories, strengthen your core and develop more muscle. Because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn when you're at rest.
And burning those extra calories can help you achieve and maintain a healthier weight in conjunction with regular cardiovascular exercise and a healthy diet.