How to Lose that Belly
If you’re apple rather than pear shaped, with a tendency to gather fat around the middle, you’ll know how difficult it is to keep slim. What you may not know is how dangerous the fat around your middle really is (more so than fat on your thighs or bottom), increasing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and certain cancers.Because of where the fat sits on your body, normal diets, even rigorous exercise regimes rarely work. However I have devised a simple lifestyle plan that does. My recommendations will not only help you get rid of fat around your middle, but you will also be doing the best you possibly can to prevent health problems in the future. Short term, you get to look better. Long term? You live longer. It’s as simple as that.
The aim is to change your body’s underlying biochemistry so that it gets the message that it is OK to let go of the fat it is choosing to store around the middle of your body.
What’s the cause?
The main reason some people gather more fat around their middle than others is specifically because of the action of the stress hormone cortisol. Millions of years ago, our bodies were designed to react quickly to danger. Like wild animals we were on constant alert so we could run or fight if threatened. When your brain thinks your life is in danger it stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol. This fight or flight response is incredibly clever and thoroughly efficient. It provides instant energy for 5-10 minutes allowing you to react swiftly to dangerous situations. These days, many of us live under chronic stress. But our bodies can’t distinguish between late trains, missed appointments, spiralling debt, infuriating work colleagues, family disputes and the truly life-threatening stress it gears up to challenge. So it reacts exactly the same as it’s always done. The problem with many modern lifestyles is that stress (our ‘perceived threat’) is almost continuous and comes without the natural release that either fighting or fleeing might provide. Unless you do something physical (as your body is expecting you to) all that extra energy, in the form of fat and glucose, has nowhere to go. It must be simply re-deposited as fat.
Food cravings you can’t control
After a stressful event cortisol levels in the blood often remain high for a while, effectively increasing your appetite because your body thinks you should refuel after all this fighting or fleeing. This means people under constant stress quite often feel constantly hungry. Worse, their body urges them to stock up on the foods it thinks will be most useful after all that ‘activity’ – carbohydrates (like sugar) and fats. It’s just the sort high-sugar, high-fat comfort and convenience food many people crave.
The fat around the middle connection
If you don’t fight or flee when your body expects you to, the fat and glucose swimming around your system get deposited as fat – around the middle of your body. And if you eat something sugary or fatty as a consequence of the post-stress appetite surge, any weight you gain as a result, will be around your middle too. The reason fat targets the middle is because it is close to the liver where it can most quickly be converted back into energy if needed. There it provides the body with protection ready for the next stress attack. Your body is only trying to help. To continue providing the energy it thinks you need, it tries to keep a convenient fat store ready for constant use and creates cravings and increases appetite to ensure good supplies of necessary fuel.
Are you stressed?
If you can see yourself in the list below, your cortisol levels are likely to be high:
- A tendency to gain fat around your tummy
- Increased appetite
- Increased cravings for chocolate, sweets, breads, cakes, caffeine and alcohol (particularly any combination of carbohydrates and fats, such as chocolate and cakes because they are particularly
- high in calories)
- Your immune system is low (you get frequent colds and infections)
- Nail biting
- Teeth grinding
- High cholesterol (if you don’t know, get it checked)
- Blood sugar swings
- Digestive problems (such as bloating and flatulence)
- Chest pains – (you must see your doctor if you are getting chest pains but the effects of the stress hormones can mimic heart problems)
- Muscle aches and pains
- Shoulder and neck pain (stress hormones will keep certain muscles tense ready for fight or flight)
- Hair loss
- Irregular periods or no periods
- Difficulty in concentrating or forgetfulness
- Increased premenstrual symptoms (PMS)
- Slower metabolism (which makes it harder to lose weight in general)
- Low sex drive
- Tiredness but an inability to sleep well
- Tendency to get a second wind in the evening
- Waking up in the middle of the night, finding it hard to get back to sleep and then desperately want to continue sleeping in the morning when you should be getting up.
Do you have a problem?
For the purposes of measuring fat around the middle, BMI (body mass index) isn’t the best test, nor is a measure of body fat percentage. The best test is the difference in size between your waist and your hips (your ‘waist to hip ratio’). This is the true measure of fat around the middle and the best indicator of whether or not you are going to be vulnerable to all the health risks associated with it. Just get a tape measure and compare your waist measurement (at the narrowest point) with your hip measurement (at the widest point). Divide your waist figure by your hip figure to get what is known as your waist–hip ratio. For example: 86cm (34in) waist divided by 94cm (37in) hip = 0.9 If your calculation gives a figure greater than 0.8 you are officially apple shaped and you need to take action. For men the danger zone is above 0.95.
If you are going into the menopause, your body will be extremely reluctant to let go of the fat around your middle. This is because fat is a manufacturing plant for oestrogen which will help protect your bones from osteoporosis. It’s a very clever system, designed to protect you, but it helps explain why mere diet and exercise alone will rarely shift that stubborn fat. The combined effect of female hormonal changes, slower metabolism and stress with high cortisol levels create a bigger likelihood of fat around the middle.
Why tummy fat is bad for you
Not all fat in the body behaves the same. Fat around the middle of the body that is the most likely to have a mind of its own. This “toxic fat” is far more metabolically active than fat elsewhere because it increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer and diabetes. One of the biggest problems it causes is insulin resistance.
When blood sugar increases (a result of the stress response or from what you have eaten), your body releases insulin to help move the glucose out of your blood and into the cells to actually provide them with energy. But if you don’t need that energy (you don’t fight or flee) the default mechanism is to store the glucose as fat. If the stress continues (it usually does) cortisol levels remain high, so the body triggers the breakdown of sugar stores in the liver and muscles to provide further fuel. Out comes more insulin to deal with the extra blood glucose. Overtime, the body simply can’t respond to insulin the same way it used to. You can become intolerant to insulin – or insulin resistant.