Politicians, gossip columnists, doctors, your best friend -- they’re all talking about the same thing: fat. Especially belly fat. The great thing about belly fat is that the better you get to know it, the easier it is to make it vanish (if only spam e-mail worked the same way!). Digest these stomach-flattening facts.
1. All fat is not alike. Eat more calories than you burn and the extras get packed away in one of two places -- long-term storage depots beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) or short-term bins deep in the abdomen (visceral fat). Visceral fat is what we call omental fat -- that is, fat in your omentum, a piece of webbing that hangs off your stomach just beneath your ab muscles, sort of like a mesh apron.
2. The fat you don’t see is the most dangerous. The soft, superficial stuff that ripples your thighs and tummy may be a bikini spoiler, but if you can pinch it, it probably won’t kill you. However, if you have a solid “beer belly" . . . well, you’re likely headed for more trouble than a politician hooked up to a polygraph. That’s because too much deep fat churns out supersize amounts of hormones and proteins, which can lead to big hazards. Among them: lousy LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels; high blood sugar and blood pressure; insulin resistance; and widespread inflammation. All are instigators of many diseases -- including dementia, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But often you can get a “do over,” and it doesn’t take that long and isn’t that hard, if you know what you’re doing. So don’t stop reading!
First, don’t rely on your scale. As you start to reduce risky belly fat, your weight may temporarily go up. So ditch the scale in favor of the tape measure. If you’re a woman, your waist should be 32.5 inches; if you’re a man, 35 inches. Creep past 37 inches for women or 40 for men, and the health dangers increase.
3. Stress makes you fat. Not only does stress lead you to eat Haagen-Dazs straight from the carton, but it also triggers the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. When stress becomes unrelenting, the omentum attempts to control cortisol flow by sucking it out of the bloodstream. Nice try, but cortisol fights back once it’s in the omentum and turbocharges fat there. That sets off other chemical reactions that leave you feeling hungry . . . and looking for the Haagen-Dazs again. Fortunately, any kind of stress reduction, especially exercise, will help short-circuit this stress/fat cycle. Feeling tense right now? Go for a walk the minute you finish this column.
4. The fat you eat affects the fat you get. When monkeys munched on trans-fat laced diets for 6 years, they developed more deep-belly fat than those who went trans-fat-free, even though both ate the same number of calories. Physiologically, we’re close enough to monkeys to extrapolate that trans fat doesn’t do anything good for your waist or your arteries.
5. Blasting belly fat isn’t hard. If you’re not overweight but still have an oversized waist, the fastest way to shrink your omentum is by walking. Taking a brisk 30-minute walk each day will keep those fat cells from expanding. Pick up the pace some, walk a little longer, and you can give your omentum a makeover, turning a flabby apron of omental fat into sheer mesh again. After 30 days of walking, start doing resistance exercises as well to add muscle and lose inches -- otherwise you’ll hit a plateau. No dumbbells? No gym? No problem. You can get an excellent workout in 20 minutes by using your own body as a weight to stretch and strengthen all of your major muscle groups. Find examples at www.realage.com/ct/shape-up-slim-down/.
6. Whole grains scare away belly fat. If you and a friend go on a diet but you eat whole grains (meaning brown rice, steel-cut oats, and whole-wheat pasta, not whole-grain Pop Tarts) and your friend eats processed grains (anything made with white/enriched grains and flours, cupcakes to noodles), you both might lose the same amount of weight, but you’ll shed more belly fat and lower your levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of damaging inflammation. And your food will taste better, and you’ll feel full longer. AND you’ll have a flat stomach!