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Once you hit your middle years—especially if you’re a woman—you tend to collect extra pounds, which is like to settle around your midsection: The dreaded belly fat. Visible belly fat is the subcutaneous variety, which you can squeeze in your hands. Though it’s the appearance of the subcutaneous belly fat that motivates so many people to try to lose it, it’s what’s hidden beneath that’s the real worry.

Why is belly fat so bad?

Abdominal fat, or visceral fat, resides deep in your abdomen, where it fills the spaces between the organs in your abdominal cavity. It’s linked to numerous health problems, including metabolic disorders and an increase in the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. It’s associated with breast cancer and gallbladder problems in women, and it may increase your risk for asthma and dementia.

Researchers believe that visceral fat is biologically active—that is, it acts somewhat like an endocrine gland, releasing hormones and cytokines, which are immune system chemicals that increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and blood clotting disorders. 

Abdominal fat is located near the portal vein, which transports blood from the gastrointestinal region to the liver. The substances released by abdominal fat move through the portal vein and into the liver, where they may increase the production of blood lipids, leading to higher “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower “good” HDL cholesterol. other substances that can have a negative impact on your health. 

Where does belly fat come from?

You’re more likely to have excess belly fat if you have one or more of these risk factors:

A poor diet

Foods high in added sugar, including soda, baked goods, and ice cream — and foods high in unhealthy saturated fats — cause weight gain, slow your metabolism, and reduce your ability to burn fat. A protein-poor diet results in feelings of hunger, since protein helps you feel fuller. Trans fats, which are now banned in foods but are still allowed in amounts less than 0.5 grams in some foods, including many baked goods. Since food producers aren’t required to list trans fat content if it’s under 0.5 grams, you may be consuming trans fats without knowing it. 

Heavy alcohol use

The association between heavy alcohol consumption and weight gain has been widely accepted for decades. Alcohol accounts for 16 percent of the total calorie intake in American adults. Because men consume around three times more alcohol than women—and are more likely to drink carbohydrate-rich beer—men are more susceptible to alcohol-related weight gain than women.

A lack of exercise

A sedentary lifestyle can lead to numerous health problems, including weight gain in the abdominal area—especially if you drink excessively, and especially as you age.

Smoking

Smoking increases your risk for belly fat, along with numerous other diseases and conditions. While cigarette smokers generally have a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who don’t smoke, studies show that smoking increases abdominal obesity, which is a major risk factor for obesity-related health problems. 

Poor sleep

A lack of adequate sleep means your body isn’t healing and recovering, and it’s been shown to increase visceral fat, especially in people younger than 40. If you have sleep problems and belly fat, talk to your health care provider about your sleep issues. 

Stress 

Stress is a known factor for weight gain. When you experience chronic stress, the hormone cortisol may increase your appetite, leading you to eat more, including binge eating. Additionally, stress makes it difficult to make healthy choices like eating healthy food and getting daily exercise.

You may be more likely to have belly fat-related health problems if you’re a woman and your waist circumference is more than 40 inches, or if you’re a man with a waist size of more than 35 inches.

How to lose belly fat 

Numerous supplements and foods are touted as miracle cures for belly fat, promising to melt it away like it’s no big deal. But the only thing that you can count on to burn away belly fat is exercise combined with healthy eating habits. It’s not possible to burn belly fat without dietary changes and exercise.

What should you eat to lose belly fat?

A nutritious diet that’s mostly plant-based is the best diet to lose belly fat. Here are some characteristics of a diet for losing belly fat.

It’s low-fat 

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and include butter, bacon grease, coconut and palm oils, red meat, and cheese. Saturated fat increases your risk for high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Fried foods, baked goods, and high-calorie, high-fat foods like pizza and fast food contain a lot of saturated fat. 

All fats have nine calories per gram, compared to four calories per gram for carbs and protein, so a diet that’s high in fat can lead to weight gain — and those extra pounds may settle in your abdominal area.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that you keep your total fat intake to 20 to 30 percent of your total daily calories, and keep your saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories. Most of your daily fat should come from healthy sources, like avocados, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and plant oils like sunflower, olive, and grapeseed oil. These beneficial fats are essential for good health and maintaining a healthy weight.

It’s low-carb

A diet in which most of your carbohydrates are complex can help you lose belly fat. Complex carbohydrates are healthy carbs and include whole grains, beans and lentils, low-fat milk and yogurt, and fruits like apples and berries. Simple carbs like sugary drinks, white bread, and refined rice and pasta, on the other hand, will replenish your abdominal fat supply and can lead to prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.

It’s protein-rich

A diet higher in protein has been shown to help prevent or treat obesity, and it helps you manage your weight. Researchers believe this is due to improvements in the metabolism of energy and reduced feelings of hunger. Recent studies and meta analyses show that higher-protein diets result in greater weight loss, increased loss of fat mass, and preservation of muscle mass. A diet higher in protein has also been shown to reduce triglycerides, blood pressure, and waist circumference.

What exercises do and don’t burn belly fat?

You can’t spot-treat belly fat with targeted abdominal exercises like sit-ups and planks. While those will tighten the abdominal muscles, they won’t touch your belly fat. Here are some of the best exercises to combat belly fat.

Cardio for belly fat reduction

Cardiovascular exercise tends to burn visceral fat before other fat deposits in the body. Although there is some disagreement about whether high-intensity or moderate-intensity exercise is better for losing belly fat, experts agree that both moderate- and high-intensity cardio are at the top of the list for most effective workouts for losing belly fat.

High-intensity interval training to lose belly fat

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT, is a cardiovascular workout that involves cycles of short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by longer periods of recovery. For example, you might run as fast as you can for 30 seconds, then walk slowly for three minutes, and repeat three to five times. In a recent meta-analysis, researchers found that HIIT significantly reduced abdominal and visceral fat mass and total body fat, and they discovered that HIIT involving running was more effective than that which involved cycling.

Weight lifting to lose belly fat

Resistance training combined with cardiovascular exercise leads to the greatest decrease in belly fat, according to research. Weight training helps increase muscle mass, which in turn increases the amount of energy your body burns in the hours after exercising. In one study, weight training combined with cardio led to 20 to 30 percent more weight loss compared with cardiovascular exercise alone. 

Forward can help you lose weight—including stubborn belly fat

As your primary care provider, Forward focuses on helping you reach your health goals, including weight loss. Our Weight Management Program and our Heart Health Program are open to all members and help you create an individualized plan to lose weight and improve your overall health while reducing your risk for diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

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