Stress. Stress is another major reason some of us tend to pack on excess abdominal fat. As Peeke puts it, when it comes to weight gain, “genetics may load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” Peeke, who spent years researching the link between stress and fat at the National Institutes of Health, says that experiencing chronic stress is not only toxic for our bodies but can also beget an expansive waistline.
All of us may experience what Peeke terms “annoying but livable” stress like traffic jams and long lines at the supermarket, but chronic stress resulting from, say, a bad marriage, an illness or career challenges can actually trigger our bodies to produce high levels of cortisol, which, among other things, gives us an intense appetite that causes us to overeat. Even worse, Peeke points out, the weight we gain as a result of sustained cortisol production tends to settle mainly in our abdomens.
Hormones. Declining sex hormones is another key reason why both men and women start to develop a paunch as they age. Even pear-shaped women, whose body chemistry is mostly governed by estrogen, start to lose their estrogen advantage after menopause and are exposed to increased health risks, says Savard. “When they gain weight after menopause, the tendency is to put on visceral fat,” she says. And if they accumulate enough visceral fat, their body shape “can transform from pear into apple.”
Whatever the reason, potbellies, it seems, have become something of an epidemic. The bad news is there is no quick-fix approach to tackling abdominal fat. As with other areas of the body, it’s impossible to target just one region for weight loss.
For example, commonly attempted spot remedies like crunches might tone your back and abdominal muscles, but they will do nothing for the fat stored in your belly. For that, you need to reduce your body’s store of fat overall.
But don’t be tempted by the bevy of crash diets out there either, says Savard, because you may very well end up gaining more weight. “Reducing your caloric intake by more than 25 percent simply triggers your metabolism to go into starvation mode, which lowers your [resting metabolic] rate,” she says. Sticking with a sensible, whole-foods diet and moderate, daily exercise will deliver much better results.
The great news is that visceral fat, while it may be stored deep down in your belly, is often the first type of fat to burn off. The fact that this fat is metabolically active actually works in your favor once you decide to get rid of it.
Forget how much you weigh, says Savard. Losing just 2 inches from your waistline can significantly decrease your risk of a host of illnesses and diseases. “Throw away your weight scale, because health is in inches, not pounds,” she emphasizes.
Eating well and exercising regularly, including lifting weights, are key to improving your chances of losing those 2 inches of visceral weight and keeping them off. Experts suggest low-to-moderate-intensity, long-duration workouts (30 minutes or more) most days of the week. Also key to losing visceral fat is to ingest and not avoid crucial fat-burning fats like omega-3 fatty acids.
“I tell people to think of the three Fs: fiber, fat and fitness,” Savard says. “It’s pretty simple, actually: If everything you’re eating is either high in fiber or a good fat, you’re eating healthy food, because there should be little or no refined carbohydrates or unhealthy saturated fats. You don’t have to worry about protein while using this approach, either,” she says, “because if you are eating healthy fats, that means you’re eating fish and nuts and keeping red meat to a minimum.”
Exercise and nutrition especially eating small, well-balanced meals every three to four hours is very important, says Peeke, but just as significant is learning how to manage stress levels. “I’ve always looked at the mind in addition to the mouth and the muscle,” she says.
To start down the path of stress-resilience, Peeke offers several tips, such as creating a support system, tapping into your spirituality, learning to find humor in everyday things, and finding some private space and time to record uncensored thoughts into a journal.
Upon adopting such recommended nutrition, exercise and lifestyle changes, most people will see belly-shrinking results within a couple of months (aiming for a 1- to 2-inch reduction within six months is a good, realistic goal for many). Some may see a visible difference more quickly. But again, don’t sweat what the scale says: A 2005 Duke University Medical Center study showed that exercising patients lost measurable amounts of visceral fat (as measured by CT scans) even when they didn’t lose much weight.
Front and Center
To some, it might seem silly to get so up-in-arms about a potbelly. After all, from Santa Claus to a pleasingly plump grandma, abdominal girth has traditionally been perceived as relatively harmless and imbued with emotional warmth and security.
Comforting cultural myths aside, however, the truth is that abdominal fat has serious health implications that we ignore at our own peril. This is a health and fitness problem that definitely deserves our undivided attention.
While there is no quick-fix approach to losing abdominal fat, thinking holistically and making real lifestyle changes can go a long way toward shedding that stubborn belly.
The payoff? We’ll not only look great at the beach next summer we’ll feel great, too.
Anjula Razdan is a Washington, D.C. based writer and editor.