Most people are overweight and carry too much fat around their tummy. How dangerous is this for your health, especially if you are diabetic, and what can you do about it?
You have two kinds of fat around your waist … subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
Subcutaneous fat is fat that is located under the skin. It is visible fat and is usually soft and squishy, the reason it is often referred to as ‘love handles’ when it is around your waist. If you are not overweight and lead an active life, this kind of fat is not dangerous even if your tummy protrudes a little bit. It only becomes a problem if you become seriously overweight.
Visceral fat is different. It is not so visible. This is because it is ‘deep fat’, ie lies within the abdominal wall where it surrounds organs and releases hormones (which is why it is also called ‘active’ fat). Too much of this fat can result in the release of excessive amounts of hormones … this causes inflammation, which puts you at risk of a variety of health problems.
In contrast to subcutaneous fat, visceral fat can make the stomach feel hard. Though it is not visible, as it grows visceral fat causes your tummy to expand. A hard, protruding stomach signals danger.
Why is visceral fat bad?
Many chronic health conditions are caused and/or made worse by this type of fat. These include heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer, and back pain.
Heart disease … visceral fat cells release cytokines, chemical messengers that affect the actions of other cells such as, for example, those that control blood pressure, cholesterol and the regulation of insulin. As cytokines affect how organs function, having them floating around in your body is not a good thing. Elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol levels contribute to heart disease.
Visceral fat tends to affect men and women at different stages in their lives. Young women tend to gain subcutaneous fat on their hips and thighs while young men usually add visceral fat to their bellies. Thus men in their 30s are more likely to experience heart disease than women. Woman are more at risk of visceral fat later when they reach menopause.
Diabetes … persons who are overweight or obese are actually 90 times more likely to develop diabetes because belly fat affects how your organs work. Studies indicate that people with deep belly fat lose their sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that regulates our blood glucose levels.
If you have diabetes or are diabetic, you need to lose weight and reduce your visceral fat so that your blood sugar levels are normalised.
Cancers … cancer is caused by mutations in our cells. When we have excess visceral fat it signals our bodies to produce hormones that cause our cells to divide and multiply. The more often our cells divide, the greater the chances that one of them will mutate into a cancerous cell.
Thus more fat means more opportunities for cancer to develop. Indeed, the WHO states that up to one-third of all cancers of the colon, kidney and digestive tract are linked to being overweight.
Back strain and pain … your core, ie your abdomen or centre of your body, needs to be strong if you are to have good balance and healthy joints, and protect yourself from injury. Having too much belly fat usually means that your abdominal muscles are weak due to the visceral fat surrounding your vital organs. When these core muscles are weak you back muscles have to take up the slack. As a result you are likely to strain you back and experience chronic backache.
What causes visceral fat?
There are plenty reasons why you put on fat around your waist … eating too much … growing older … family traits … alcohol … stress.
Excessive eating … when we ingest more calories than we use up in our daily activities, our bodies store the extra calories as fat. We all need to eat less.
Growing older … as we age we start to lose muscle mass and gain fat. This is normal but it means that if we don’t learn to eat less we will put on weight, ie get fat.
Family traits … our genetics and family history plays a role in the type of fat we gain. If your parents had excessive visceral fat, the likelihood is that you will also have too much unless you take steps to stay slim and trim.
Alcohol … drinking to much intoxicating beverages (wine, beer or spirits) contributes to a build-up of ‘beer belly’ which is mainly visceral fat. But note that beer belly can be developed by drinking wine or spirits, not just beer.
Stress … continuous high levels of stress, of the sort we experience in modern life, causes a build-up of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our systems. Over time, this hormone leads to increasing amounts of fat around our tummies.
Who is most at risk of visceral fat?
Any one at any age who overeats (ie, eats more than they burn off in various activities) will develop tummy fat. However it does tend to increase with age, especially among women.
Those most at risk of developing excessive visceral fat are … white men … Afro-American women … Indian men and women from the subcontinent … people who drink sugary drinks … those who are already overweight or obese.
The good news is that visceral belly fat responds very well to diet … and all belly fat can be reduced significantly through exercise.
So, to trim down to a sleek tummy line, forget about pills, purgatories and herbal remedies, and ignore the miracle cures … you can get rid of belly fat naturally with nothing more than a healthy diet and plenty of exercise.
Reduce belly fat through diet
One of the best ways to reduce both kinds of belly fat … subcutaneous and visceral … is to create a calorie deficit, ie eat fewer calories than your body burns. All you need to be able to do is to make a rough calculation of the calories you eat each day and reduce that figure by at least 25%. It is not too hard to do, and it works.
At the same time you need to follow the Beating Diabetes diet. Here it is:
Eat natural foods that are low in sugar, low in fat, low in salt, and high in fibre, and have a low Glycemic Index. Your diet should consist mostly of plants and lean protein. Wash your food down with plenty of water.
Following this diet is pretty easy.
First get rid of sugary drinks and foods … no more sodas and no sugar in your tea and coffee, which have been linked in some studies to the development of visceral fat. You must also cut out cakes and sweets, indeed any food with added sugar.
If you crave sugar, fight the craving … it can be done. Eating lean protein from legumes and lean meats can help you feel full and reduce your cravings.
To reverse your diabetes and reduce visceral fat, you must eliminate as much fat as possible from your diet. You need to eliminate entirely trans-fats and saturated fats which are closely linked to the development of visceral fat. This means eating unprocessed foods, ie lean meats, avocados and other fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as beans and oatmeal which are full of soluble fibre.
To reduce your intake of salt simply stop using the salt shaker and avoid all processed foods as these are packed with salt, both to preserve them and give them favour. In fact, processed foods also usually contain copious amounts of sugar and fat in order to enhance flavours.
Foods that are high in fibre are wholemeal grains such as oatmeal, most vegetables and fruits. Getting plenty of fibre ensures smooth digestion (provided you drink plenty of water).
Eating wholemeal grains means you are avoiding simple carbohydrates such as white bread, other refined grains and sugary foods which are low in nutritional value but high in calories. These foods are high on the glycemic index which means they are digested rapidly which gives rise to spikes in blood glucose, the scourge of diabetics, and the rapid development of visceral fat. Wholemeal grains are digested slowly (ie, they have low GIs) and are much healthier.
Reduce belly fat with exercise
Research has shown that exercise plays a significant role in eliminating belly fat. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in October 2005 compared men who exercised with men who did not and discovered that exercise is crucial in reducing visceral fat.
The researchers found that a modest exercise program prevents significant increases in visceral fat, while more vigorous exercise results in significant reductions in visceral, subcutaneous, and total abdominal fat without any changes in the intake of calories.
However, undertaking exercises that target the stomach area, such as crunches and sit-ups, does not get rid of belly fat … even though they strengthen abdominal muscles.
There are several ways you can reduce tummy fat using exercises:
Get moving … just increasing your level of physical activity will burn more calories. If you have a sedentary occupation, get up from your desk and move around every hour or so. Parking away from your destination so you have to walk the final few yards and walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift can burn more calories and reduce you tummy.
Take up cardiovascular exercises … it gets the heart pumping and reduces visceral fat by burning up calories. But start slowly with walking or swimming before working up to running or skipping rope.
High intensity interval training … in which you alternate intense exercise with slower activities, burns abdominal fat and is ideal if you are not ready for sustained high intensity exercising. Start slowly by (say) walking for 5 minutes and then running for 1 minute.
Strength training … can help you lose weight because muscles burn more calories than fat. You need to practise regularly several days a week. As well as reducing belly fat, strength training can help you to control your diabetes and prevent other chronic illnesses such as osteoporosis.
Belly fat can give rise to serious health problems whether you are diabetic or not.
But you can get rid of it easily enough with diet and exercise …
- Eat fewer calories than you burn
- Avoid sugary foods
- Avoid fat in your diet as far as possible
- Avoid added salt
- Avoid refined carbohydrates
- Avoid processed foods
- Eat lean protein
- Eat foods that are digested slowly
- Eat lots of soluble fibre
- Drink alcohol sparingly
- Reduce your stress levels
- Take up aerobic exercises (cardio)
Credit … image courtesy of Pixabay