If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me about losing their gut….well, I’d have at least $20 :) But seriously, it seems that for many people, losing lbs from their midsection is a lifelong battle, and no matter how much exercise they do, it’s the stubborn middle that remains.
Well, what I am going to tell you about belly fat in this post is not convenient nor easy to do. But like anything worthwhile, results can be achieved with consistency and a healthy dose of willpower. BUT, there is a good amount of stuff to know about belly fat that has nothing to do with working harder, but instead about the right approach. And also some geeky science, for you nerdy types :)
To get you started, go ahead and read this post from Metabolic Effect on belly fat (it’s phenomenal).
- Belly fat, in one respect is a physique issue of course, but can also be dangerous for health, since it is related to visceral fat accumulation near the heart, lungs and other abdominal cavity organs. Good news is that visceral fat around the organs is easier to burn with correct diet and intense exercise because blood flow to this area is greater.
- Belly fat, though often a caloric issue, can also have to do with hormones. It’s not strictly a caloric issue because when some people eat in a caloric surplus, they may gain muscle or their fat goes to their lower bodies, for example. It’s not as cut and dry as simply overeating.
- However, a caloric surplus is most likely to result in belly fat when a) the calories are derived heavily from starch and sugar (big insulin response) and b) when a person is not lifting weights consistently.
- Insulin is an important hormone to consider in belly fat because when we overeat sugar/starch frequently or in high amounts, especially when sedentary, insulin fills the finite carbohydrate storage first then plays a role in converting excess sugar to fat for storage. Insulin also locks in stored fat so it cannot be broken down.
- Excessive insulin has been linked to fat storage in the belly, especially the love-handle area.
- Also, when insulin is around in high amounts frequently (i.e. when eating a diet high in refined sugar foods, like candy, cookies, donuts, white bread, etc), the cell receptors that it normally binds to are down-regulated so the insulin cannot be used effectively, resulting in insulin insensitivity. This makes it harder to build muscle, harder to lose fat and the insulin swimming around in the blood stream, unable to be taken up, causes inflammation in the vessel walls. No bueno.
- It is also possible, as Jade and Metabolic Effect says, to “stress yourself” into having excess belly fat. We have all heard of cortisol as the ‘belly fat hormone,’ but cortisol (a stress hormone) is actually a catabolic hormone, preferentially pulling fat & muscle from the periphery (arms & legs). However, when cortisol is around in high amounts, say during chronically high stress times, the arms and legs can get smaller and the middle can get wider as a result. You’ll typically see this when someone doesn’t work out or only engages in long-duration moderate intensity cardio, like marathon runners.
- A “high cortisol look” for someone who doesn’t lift weights or do intense exercise will manifest in the typical skinny-guy-with-gut look. For those with chronically high cortisol who do work out, the look might be a “puffy” look all over. Fat will usually accumulate around the belly button.
- Cortisol can become chronically high as a result of many different kinds of stress–emotional stress, physical stress, injury, lack of sleep, going too long without eating (done a lot over time), engaging in long-duration cardio, especially moderate intensity, low calorie-dieting, going too low carb, etc. Regardless of whether it’s physical, mental or emotional stress, the body responds the same way–with a rise in cortisol. When this happens day after day, year after year, the effects show up on the physique.
- Stressing yourself into abdominal fat is tricky because stress hormones affect other organs & glands too, such as the adrenals, thyroid, etc. These are part of our metabolic machinery, and when they become compromised, it becomes even harder to burn fat. See this great post from Metabolic Effect on the “metabolic damage” concept.
- If abdominal obesity is caused by overeating and/or eating too much of the wrong foods, the solution is a nutrition one.
- Nutrition approach to lower insulin’s fat storage potential: focus on doing most of your starch earlier in the day and post-workout only. Exercise intensely to push carbs into muscle, rather than being stored as fat (even diabetics are insulin-sensitive post-workout!).
- Your food choices matter too. We generally don’t need as many carbs as we think we do. I recommend most people get 80% of their calories from lean protein, fruits and fibrous veggies. The remaining 20% from starch, and it’s best to choose hypoallergenic ones like potatoes, rice, oats and starchy veggies to prevent potential allergic reactions, which can impair fat loss.
- If your issue is more about food volume and carbs, you might want to try intermittent fasting, as it is the fasted way to re-sensitize yourself to insulin. Begin with a 12 hour nightly fast, and then add an hour each week until you get to a daily 16 hour fast. Monitor hunger, energy and cravings to make sure the fasting isn’t causing you to be ravenous in the end.
- If abdominal obesity is caused by chronic stress and high cortisol, the solution is a lifestyle one.
- For stress types, lifestyle change is necessary to help reduce stress. Engage in activities that help lower stress, like leisure walking, massage, reading, meditation, sauna, baths, etc. Also, frequent eating of smaller meals, eating clean carbs on the regular and sleeping at least 7-8 hours/night. I also recommend using branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), 5-15g/day.
- Weight training is KEY for both types, though for the stress people, think about going a little slower, a little heavier and taking more rest. For the insulin types, stay as heavy as possible, but don’t be afraid to move a little faster and incorporate metabolic conditioning.
- In terms of cardio, both types should try to do as little as possible of the moderate duration variety. I advocate sprints for both. Short duration, high intensity. 50-200m repeats on the track, resting as long as necessary in between each one. Do 8-10.
- Sprints are not only great for fat loss, but they have an incredible ability to actually build the abdominal muscles themselves. If you want to work your abs, honestly, go and sprint 100m as fast as you can 8 times and tell me you aren’t sore tomorrow :) The movement pattern itself builds all parts of the core, from the obliques to the rectus abdominus and even the hip flexors. Great read on how sprinting is the king of ab development here.
- Important consideration if you want visible abs is this: no matter how many crunches you do, if your ab muscles are buried under fat, they will not be seen. So the first order of business is to lose fat. This is mostly a nutrition issue–eating a diet lower in carbs, higher in lean protein and then eat fibrous vegetables like it’s your job. They are a natural diuretic and help you shed water from your midsection. Plus, the vitamins and minerals from fruits and veggies also balance electrolytes to prevent water retention.
- However, re: beverages for abs. It’s important to DRINK plenty of plain water and skip sweetened beverages as much as possible–even naturally-sweetened ones–because sugar alcohols, which are “natural” can cause gas, bloating and water retention. 3-4L of plain water daily, plain unsweetened green tea, black coffee. Skip sodas (even diet), milk, juice, zero-cal waters, Crystal Light, alcohol, etc.
- Many people who continue to do more and more exercise hardly make a dent in their midsection. This is because belly fat is not do-more-exercise issue. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Abs are made in the kitchen,” and this hold true for most people. Exercise can be a great supplement but without a tight nutrition plan (for either hormonal type), there will always be a point of diminishing returns when it comes to simply doing more exercise. With consistent tight nutrition, you’ll see results. The same is not necessarily true with exercise.
- The degree to which your abs are “chunky” is partially genetic. Some people can do heavy ab movements all day long and never build “bricks” while others have it easier. Once you lose enough fat, however, then the abs muscles can show up (or at least more definition). To build ab chunkiness, do heavier abs movements if you want to build them to “pop.” Work them like any other muscle group (1-2x/week), and focus on rope curls, decline sit-ups, decline leg raises, hanging leg raises, ball crunches and planks.
- To measure progress, the best way thing to do is use a measuring tape to take a waist circumference. Do this once a week and record the results. If you are putting the right tools into practice, you should see results within 2-4 weeks.
- If you want to see your abs, the #1 most important thing is stay CONSISTENT. It can take months and years to see see visible and developed abs. Stay on track with your nutrition, intense exercise, sleep and stress management at least 90% adherence 100% of the time, and good luck!
If you are interested in learning more about the science of belly fat (literally everything you ever wanted to know), pick up the brand new book from Dr. Jade Teta and Dr. Ray Hinish (two incredibly too-smart-for-their-own-good nutrition and fitness professionals), out this week, here: Beat Your Belly Fat. It’s a comprehensive guide to everything having to do with whittling your waistline, including a detailed nutrition plan, workout program and everything in between–a refreshingly new take on an old, pesky problem. Highly recommend :) Good luck!