Q What exactly is the problem with belly fat, and why is it so hard to take off?
-Jamie F., Minneapolis
There are several problems with belly fat. First, it's a sign of high triglycerides, the type of fat that's made when we consume excess sugar. Second, belly fat correlates directly to cortisol, the "stress hormone," and thus indicates that the body isn't dealing well with stressors. Third, belly fat puts a big strain on the spine and compromises good posture, which is a leading cause of chronic back pain. Fourth, belly fat is like an announcement that you're making poor food choices. I know that sounds harsh, but with one-third of Americans being significantly overweight, the scenario in the movie WALL-E is beginning to look less and less like science fiction. Let's break down these statements further.
Triglycerides are a type of fat formed from three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. They're an important biomarker of health. In humans, triglycerides are a mechanism for storing unused calories. If your fasting blood triglyceride count is higher than 160 ng/mL, this implies that you're eating too many starchy or other high-carbohydrate foods. That's a key point. Eating too much sugar raises triglycerides, which are generally stored in the abdominal area-not only the belly, but in and around other vital organs, such as the liver and heart. And fatty liver and fatty heart tissue compromise health and fitness.
Another mechanism for storing excess calories comes via our stress hormone, cortisol. Belly fat usually correlates to high cortisol levels. Some 150 thousand years ago, our stressors were much more intense, immediately life-threatening, and infrequent. We evolved mechanisms to fight or flee, and to store energy (calories) against periods of famine.
Today, very few Americans face famine or predators. Our stressors are more modern: debt, traffic, hectic schedules. But physiologically, we still respond to stress in many of the same ways that our ancient ancestors did: including with spikes in cortisol levels.
One of cortisol's many functions is to trigger the release of insulin from the pancreas. Insulin is responsible for transporting glucose across our cell membranes and into the cells, where the glucose is used to produce fuel. If we trigger this insulin release over and over as a response to daily stressors, our cells become "insulin resistant." That means that the insulin receptors on our cell surfaces don't respond as well, and glucose doesn't get into the cell, where it's needed to produce energy (ATP). This triggers feedback to the brain indicating that the cells aren't getting glucose, which leads us to crave sugar and other refined carbs. Unfortunately the feedback loop is now broken because eating more sugar only exacerbates the problem-stimulating excessive insulin release and deepening the insulin resistance, which is the direct precursor to type 2 diabetes.
In an upright human, the weight on the spine should ideally be directed straight down through the top of the head, over the shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. A front load, like carrying a pack of books across your chest, compromises the ability to maintain good posture and pulls the spine into hyperlordosis (a curvature of the back). This contributes to tight quadriceps (thigh muscles), which further impedes the possibility of a tall spine.
Low back pain is one of the most common complaints treated by family doctors. Losing belly fat and engaging in a simple series of 14 stretching and toning exercises daily (detailed at dremilykane.com) can permanently relieve you of this scourge.
Poor Food Choices
So, which foods cause belly fat? Mainly foods that have a high glycemic index, particularly processed grains (including alcohol), fruit juices, artificial sweeteners, and the biggest culprit: high fructose corn syrup. For more on the glycemic index, see mendosa.com. For information on which foods to eat to promote healthy longevity and lose belly fat, visit beyonddiet.com, and mercola.com.
To summarize, belly fat is made largely of triglycerides, which represent the storage of excess sugar. Eating too much sugar provokes insulin release, and insulin signals the body to store excess sugar as fat, especially when the cells have become insulin resistant. Cortisol, our stress hormone, also provokes insulin release, and chronic insulin release ultimately leads to insulin resistance and high triglycerides.
The key to trimming belly fat is to replace the processed carbohydrates, including alcohol, in your diet with fruits, vegetables, good fats, and healthy protein. Ideally, your blood sugar (glucose) readings would always be in the 70-100 ng/mL range. A reading of 100-120 is now considered pre-diabetic.
Some physicians consider a reading of up to 250 "adequate control" in a diabetic, but this is incorrect. While cleaning up your diet, it's better to use insulin short term to keep blood sugar levels at 150 or lower than to allow excess sugar in your blood stream. High blood glucose "rusts out" small blood vessels, which is why many diabetics develop blindness or kidney failure, or require lower limb amputations.
So stop eating processed grains and abandon sugary drinks (including artificially sweetened drinks; xylitol, stevia, and mannose are acceptable sweeteners). If you focus your diet on lean protein, good carbs (fruits and vegetables), and healthy fats, your belly fat will be catabolized bit by bit.
Healthy fats means olive oil, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, organic butter, avocado, eggs, and fish. Don't fry anything. Avoid hydrogenated oils, which often includes salad dressings and cooking oils in clear glass or plastic bottles. If you're trying to lose weight, most fruits are fine in moderation, but avoid bananas and melons because they are particularly high on the glycemic index. The same with vegetables: almost all veggies are terrific food choices except corn and potatoes, which are high in starch and turn to sugar quickly.
Stock up on carrot sticks, apples, almonds, and avocados, and drink herbal teas. Avoid fancy coffee drinks, muffins, chips, cookies, and ice cream. Just get over it. You deserve to not eat that stuff.
Once you've lost your belly fat and achieved a healthy weight, you will understand what kind of moderation is required to keep the weight off. Aim for a BMI of 20-24. Develop forms of relaxation that don't involve snacking.
It's okay to eat three meals and have two snacks a day, but do it consciously, and focus on enjoying each bite. Slow down, so your digestive process works correctly. Focus on keeping blood sugar levels stable so you don't crave food, which triggers your desire to consume-and thus store-excess calories.
Do you have a health question? Email "Dr. Em" at firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "Ask the Naturopath" in the subject line.