Guess what: Everyone has some belly fat or problem spots, even people who have flat bellies… It’s normal.
But too much belly fat can affect your health in a way that other fat doesn’t. Some of your fat is right under your skin. Other fat is deeper inside, around your heart, lungs, liver, and other abdominal organs. It’s that deep fat , known as “visceral” fat, that is likely the bigger problem, even for thin people.
by Steven Vale, M.D.
Deep Belly Fat
You need some visceral fat. It provides cushioning around your organs.
But if you have too much of it, you may be more likely to get high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer.
The fat doesn’t just sit there. It’s an active part of your body, making “lots of nasty substances,” says Kristen Hairston, MD, assistant professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
If you gain too much weight, your body starts to store your fat in unusual places.
With increasing obesity, you have people whose regular areas to store fat are so full that the fat is deposited into the organs and around the heart, says Carol Shively, PhD, professor of pathology-comparative medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
How Much Belly Fat Do You Have?
The most precise way to determine how much visceral fat you have is to get a CT scan or MRI. But there’s a much simpler, low-cost way to check. Get a measuring tape, wrap it around your waist at your belly button, and check your girth. Do it while you’re standing up, and make sure the tape measure is level.
For your health’s sake, you want your waist size to be less than 35 inches if you’re a woman and less than 40 inches if you’re a man. Having a “pear shape” — bigger hips and thighs — is considered safer than an “apple shape,” which describes a wider waistline.
“What we’re really pointing to with the apple versus pear,” Hairston says, “is that, if you have more abdominal fat, it’s probably an indicator that you have more visceral fat.”
Thin People Have It, Too
Even if we’re thin, we can still have visceral fat.
How much visceral adipose we have is partly controlled by our genes, and partly by lifestyle, especially how much we exercise.
Visceral fat flourishes with inactivity. In one study, thin people who watched their diets but didn’t exercise were more likely to have too much visceral fat.
The fix for fat is to exercise, no matter what age or size you are.
4 Steps to Beat Belly Fat
There are four keys to controlling belly fat: exercise, diet, sleep, and stress reduction.
1. Exercise: Strenuous exercise burns all your fat, including visceral fat.
Get at least 60 minutes of moderate exercise at least 4-5 days a week. Walking is even okay, provided it’s brisk enough that you work up a sweat and breathe harder, with your heart rate faster than usual. A 50% reduction from resting rate is optimal.
To get the same results in half the time, we can step up the pace and try vigorous exercising. Running, swimming and spinning are best. We need to do that for 20 minutes a day, 4 days a week.
Run, if you’re already fit, or walk briskly at an incline on a treadmill if you’re not able to run. Vigorous exercise on a stationary bike, elliptical or rowing machine is also effective, says Duke researcher Cris Slentz, PhD.
Moderate activity — raising your heart rate for 30 minutes at least three times per week — also helps. It slows down how much visceral fat you gain. But to really reduce visceral fat, our workouts may need to be stepped up.
“Rake leaves, walk, garden, go to Zumba, play soccer with your kids. It doesn’t have to be in the gym,” Hairston says.
If you are not active now, it’s a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a new fitness program.
2. Diet: There is no magic diet or pill for belly fat. But when you lose weight on any diet, belly fat usually is reduced first. Getting more fiber can also chelp. Hairston’s research shows that people who eat 10 grams of soluble fiber per day, without any other diet changes, build up less visceral fat over time than others. That’s as simple as eating two small apples, a cup of snap peas, or a half-cup of pinto beans.
Even if we keep everything else the same and just switch to a higher-fiber diet, we may be able to better maintain our weight over time. Even taking Metamucil® can help!
3. Sleeping: Getting the right amount of sleep helps. In one study, people who got 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night gained less visceral fat over 5 years when compared to those who slept 5 or fewer hours per night or more than 8 hours per night. Sleep may not be the only thing that matters, but it is part of the picture.
4. Stress: We all have stressors. How we handle stress matters. The best things we can do include yoga, meditating, exercising to blow off steam, and insight-oriented counseling. Each leaves us healthier and better prepared to make healthy choices for ourselves. And we binge eat less when we have less stress.
“If you could only afford the time to do one of these things,” Shively says, “exercise probably has the most immediate benefits, because it gets at both obesity and stress.”