Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management
With two-thirds of our population being overweight, it’s easy to think that hanging on to an extra twenty or thirty pounds of body fat isn’t so bad. After all, most people are worse off than that. We’re at a point today where being at a healthy body weight is the exception, not the rule, which makes it easier to accept the extra weight. What’s the hurt in having a little extra fat around the belly? Isn’t it a normal part of aging anyway?
While it’s true that it’s common to gain extra belly fat as people age today, that doesn’t mean it’s normal or healthy. In fact, research shows extra belly fat, or visceral fat, can lead to serious health complications. Visceral fat is found underneath the abdomen. It is fat that covers the organs. A small amount is part of a healthy body, but when diet and lifestyle factors are not optimal, visceral fat can grow to dangerous levels. Visceral fat is not the “pinch an inch” fat. It’s actually difficult to pinch at all. Those who have a high amount of visceral fat tend to have lower measured body fat levels when they’re measured through skinfold measurements. It’s not just an issue for men either. Women tend to increase their amount of belly fat as they age at a proportionally faster rate than men.1
Belly Fat, Hormones and Disease
Fat cells used to be considered simple cells that simply stored the extra calories in our diet. However, evidence indicates visceral fat cells are metabolically active cells, secreting hormones that affect glucose and fat metabolism.2 Research also points to visceral fat and its ability to increase inflammation.3
As glucose metabolism changes, cells become more resistant to insulin. That means the body must produce more insulin to handle the same amount of glucose in the blood. Higher levels of insulin increase the storage of fat and prevents the burning of fat. As visceral fat increases, it further increases insulin resistance, which further increases fat storage, and the downward cycle continues. In addition, inflammation increases insulin resistance. As visceral fat levels increase, they can increase levels of inflammation. This is a metabolic double-whammy on blood-sugar management.
Visceral fat has been shown to be strongly correlated with heart disease for some time, but a new study shows visceral fat is associated with dementia. The study, published in the Annals of Neurology shows that those with increasing levels of visceral fat have decreased brain mass, which is common among those with dementia.4
Reducing Belly Fat
The increased prevalence of people with high levels of body fat has much to do with our current lifestyles, dietary patterns and level of stress. There isn’t any one thing that can eliminate excess belly fat, but there are some simple lifestyle and diet changes you can make. The following is a short-list of some changes you can make:
- Include short-duration, intense resistance training as part of your exercise program. Intense exercise can increase growth hormone production, which has been shown to help reduce levels of visceral fat.5
- Avoid the combination of high-stress levels and high insulin levels. When cortisol levels are high, along with high insulin levels (which are a result of high levels of carbohydrate consumption), visceral fat accumulation increases. Avoid the temptation to ease stress by eating high-carbohydrate, especially high-sugar foods.6
- Check labels and avoid fructose. Fructose has been shown to increase visceral fat. This is unique to sugars, as glucose has not been shown to increase visceral fat.7 Fructose can be found in about the same amounts in high fructose corn syrup and sucrose (table syrup). It is also highly-concentrated in fruit juices, processed honey, agave nectar and other processed fruit syrups.
Have your hormone levels checked. Testosterone and estrogen levels can affect the development of visceral fat. If they are out of balance, talk with your doctor about additional steps you can take.
In a time when cancer, heart disease, and a number of other degenerative diseases are increasing year after year, one visible sign of something going wrong with our metabolism is belly fat, and it should be taken seriously. We are not always fortunate enough to see internal health problems outside our body. That’s not the case with visceral fat. It doesn’t mean you have to be significantly overweight to have an issue with visceral fat. If you carry most of your body fat around your midsection, take action on the ideas above, and connect with an nutrition and fitness professional to make appropriate changes to your lifestyle and diet.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Belly fat in women: How to keep it off. Mayo Clinic online article (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/belly-fat/WO00128)
- Tschoner A, Sturm W, Eng J, Kaser S, Laimer M, Laimer E, Weiss H, Patsch JR, Ebenbichler CF. Retinol-binding Protein 4, Visceral Fat, and the Metabolic Syndrome: Effects of Weight Loss. Obesity. 2008. 16;11:2439-2444
- Nesto RW. Obesity: A Major Component of the Metabolic Syndrome. Tex Heart Inst J. 2005; 32(3):387-389
- msnbc.com. Belly fat linked to dementia, study shows. Livescience.com May 21, 2010
- Geauregard C, Utz AL, Schaub AE, Nachtigal L, Biller BM, Miller KK, Kilbanski A. Growth hormone decreases visceral fat and improves cardiovascular risk markers in women with hypopituitarism: a randomized, placebo-conrolled study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jun;93(6)2063-71
- Björntorp P. Hormonal control of regional fat distribution. Human Reproduction. 1997. 12:1;21-25
- Stanhope KL, Schwarz JM, Keim NL, Griffen SC, et al. Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. J Clin Invest. 2009;119(5):1322-1334
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.