Carrying excess weight around your belly isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s also linked to many chronic lifestyle diseases like type two diabetes, some types of cancers, heart disease and metabolic syndrome which consists of a cluster of symptoms including high blood pressure, elevated blood fats and high blood sugar levels. The good news however is that despite carrying a greater health risk compared to other fat stores in the body, abdominal fat is very susceptible to fat loss through lifestyle changes. Abdominal fat has been linked to menopause, ageing, chronic stress, poor sleep, physical inactivity, high alcohol intakes, high intakes of added sugars and refined carbohydrates and saturated and trans fat. Here are some scientifically proven ways to reduce your abdominal fat.
Cut back on added sugars
Sugar is added to many processed foods today. High intakes of added sugar, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drink have been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Simply put, when the liver gets overloaded with sugar its converted into fat around the belly and in the liver. This process can also lead to insulin resistance a medical condition which in itself can lead to weight gain around the abdomen. Cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices and high-sugar sports drinks unless you are competing or engaging in endurance sports. Become label savvy and keep your added sugar intake to less than 4 teaspoons or 16 of sugar per day. This does not include the natural sugar found in fruit, milk and yoghurt and honey.
Choose low GI carbohydrates
Carbohydrate foods are an important part of a balanced diet, however not all carbohydrates are equal. All carbohydrate foods are broken down into glucose (sugar) in the body. The Glycemic Index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrate foods on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent they raise blood sugar levels after eating.
Low GI carbohydrates are slowly digested, absorbed and broken down in the body causing a lower and slower rise in blood glucose levels and sustained energy. Low GI carbohydrates are important for our long-term health and help with maintaining a healthy weight. These include things like sourdough or good quality seeded bread, fruit, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, quinoa, dark seedy crackers and rolled oats.
High GI carbohydrates are rapidly digested, absorbed and broken down resulting in blood glucose levels spiking and then crashing. When blood sugar levels spike the body compensates by producing lots of a hormone called insulin. Insulin is a hormone which stops fat burning and high levels of insulin in the body lead to weight gain. Many Western diets today are based on high glycemic foods such as white rice, white potato, white bread, cakes, biscuits, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed cereals like rice bubbles and cornflakes.
Cortisol a chronic stress hormone has been shown to affect how fat is distributed throughout the body. Cortisol causes fat to be stored centrally in the body, around the major organs and can increase visceral fat, the hidden dangerous fat which hugs the organs. Acute and chronic stress have also been shown to increase appetite in some groups of people, leading them to consume more food. Many people also compensate for stress by comfort eating. Put in place strategies to help manage your stress levels better including getting seven hours of good quality sleep per night, exercise, relaxation, meditation, yoga or talk therapy with a psychologist or counsellor.
Go easy on the grog
Some research shows that drinking too much alcohol is associated with an increase belly fat, specifically the dangerous fat lurking around your organs called visceral fat. Alcohol may lead to weight gain for numerous reasons including that it is high in calories (energy), it can increase appetite and cravings for poor foods and it can also slow down or prevent your body from burning fat.
Alcohol is one of the four macronutrients including carbohydrate, protein and fat that we derive energy from. Alcohol comes second to fat in terms of how calorie dense it is. When we consume alcohol our bodies switch from burning the calories from our food to burning up the calories from alcohol or storing any excess as fat. Drinking alcohol can also increase your appetite. When we consume alcoholic beverages they’re usually consumed in conjunction with high-energy foods such as takeaway food.
Prioritise your sleep
If you’re someone who is getting less than the seven hours of sleep recommended for Australian adults, chances are you’re not alone. Its estimated that between 33-40% of Australian adults are chronically sleep deprived and are not getting enough sleep. Numerous studies have shown a relationship between sleep duration and body mass index (BMI). The shorter the sleep, the higher an individual’s BMI becomes. For example The Nurses Health Study showed women who slept for fewer than 5hrs a day were 2.5kg heavier than those who slept 7hrs per night. Proposed reasons why poor sleep may lead to weight gain and a whole range of health problems include:
- Increase cortisol production, a stress hormone which leads to weight gain
- Reduce insulin sensitivity, which increases the likelihood of weight gain, particularly when consuming a heavy carbohydrate-based or high sugar diet
- Increase appetite, in particular for carbohydrate or sweetened foods
- Reduce satiety hormones, meaning you need to eat more to get the signal to your brain that you’re full