How to lose that belly
Leading women’s health expert Dr Marilyn Glenville explains why the fat around your middle is so much more dangerous than the fat on your thighs or bottom… and what you can do about it!
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.
Did you know that the fat around your middle increases 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, a few simple changes to your lifestyle will not only help you get rid of fat around your middle, but you’ll also be doing the best you possibly can to prevent health problems in the future.
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. 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, our bodies can’t distinguish between late trains, missed appointments, spiralling debt, and the truly life-threatening stress it gears up to challenge. So unless you do something physical, 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 the fighting or fleeing. This means people under constant stress often feel constantly hungry and usually crave carbohydrates (like sugar) and fats.
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. 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.
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 caffeine, alcohol and combinations of carbohydrates and fats, such as chocolate and cakes.
- 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, but the effects of the stress hormones can mimic heart problems).
- Muscle aches and pains.
- Shoulder and neck pain.
- Hair loss.
- Irregular periods or no periods.
- Difficulty in concentrating, or forgetfulness.
- Increased premenstrual symptoms (PMS).
- Slower metabolism.
- Low sex drive.
- Tiredness, but an inability to sleep well.
- Tendency to get a second wind in the evening.
- Waking up in the night, finding it hard to get back to sleep, then desperately want to continue sleeping in the morning.
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 your body fat percentage. The best test is your ‘waist to hip ratio’. Get a tape measure and compare your waist measurement at the narrowest point with your hip at the widest point. Divide your waist figure by your hip figure for your waist–hip ratio. If you get a figure greater than 0.8 you are officially appleshaped and 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.
One of the biggest problems tummy fat causes is insulin resistance. If your blood sugar increases but you don’t need that energy (you don’t fight or flee), the default mechanism is to store the glucose as fat. With constant stress, the body simply can’t respond to insulin so it can become insulin resistant.
What are your choices?
Try to stick to these simple rules:
- Stop dieting
Stop dieting (yes, really!) and don’t count calories, otherwise your body will think there’s a famine and raises stress levels (which contribute to fat storage).
- Eat little and often
Try to keep your blood sugar levels and energy levels stable by eating something every three hours. Just eat breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a snack mid morning and one mid afternoon, with no longer than three hours between. Oh, and try not to eat carbohydrates after 6pm.
- Don’t skip breakfast
If you miss breakfast completely your body immediately registers famine and hangs on tight to your ample stores of fat.
- Eliminate all sugar and refined carbohydrates
Avoid any foods that make your blood sugar rise quickly because as blood sugar drops again your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to stabilise it once more. Swap to whole grain alternatives.
- Add protein to each meal
Protein slows down the rate the stomach processes food and slows the passage of the carbohydrates with it. As soon as you add a protein (be it animal or vegetable) to a carbohydrate you change it into a slower releasing carbohydrate, which is a very good thing.
- Eat essential fats
A lifelong dependency on low fat diets might mean you’re consuming less saturated fat, but most people today have unwittingly made themselves deficient in the good fats – essential fatty acids. As the name implies these essential fatty acids (EFAs) are essential and you can only get them from your diet. Your body cannot manufacture them so you have to eat them.
- Don’t eat on the run
It gives your body the message that time is scarce, you are under pressure and stressed. Furthermore, your digestive system will be less efficient. Make a point of sitting down and eating your food as calmly as possible.
- Watch what you drink
Cut out all caffeine and sugary drinks and significantly reduce alcohol intake (cut it out completely for a month if you can).
- Change the way you think about food
If you’re really serious about changing your body shape you need to think about food and eating as a way of life so that healthy, enjoyable eating becomes a habit, something you do everyday without even thinking about it, just like cleaning your teeth.