When you go to great lengths to get into shape by eating well, exercising hard and generally looking after yourself, it’s frustrating when you don’t see the results you want.
One of the main body grievances many people experience is struggling to lose belly fat — even after they see body composition changes elsewhere.
To understand why it’s hard to get rid of abdominal fat, as well as find solutions, HuffPost Australia spoke to a dietitian, nutritionist and personal trainer.
“Women are more prone to gain weight around the hips and thighs, but women can also be prone to abdominal fat gain — as can men,” nutritionist Fiona Tuck told HuffPost Australia.
“When the waist thickens and begins to exceed hip girth, it can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, raised triglycerides and high blood pressure.”
“In a way, it’s good that we naturally don’t want stomach fat to be there because carrying extra weight around our abdominal area is much less healthy for us,” accredited practising dietitian and sports dietitian Chloe McLeod said.
“This is where it’s called visceral fat, which is in and around our organs — whereas the fat present all over our body under our skin is subcutaneous fat. When there’s high amounts of visceral fat, it increases the risk of developing those diseases like metabolic syndrome and heart disease. Being aware of, and managing, this is incredibly important.”
So why is stomach fat so hard to get rid of for many people?
“Fat may gather here for a number of different reasons, such as high stress levels, hormonal imbalance, ageing and a poor diet high in alcohol, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats,” Tuck said.
According to the experts, often the number one reason we can’t lose belly fat is simply because of our hormones and age.
“I think the main reason for belly fat is to do with hormones,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
“Particularly in men, as they start to get older, levels of testosterone start to decrease and this can then result in the fat cells around the stomach area to expand. Testosterone stops them from expanding, so as that reduces it becomes easier to gain stomach weight.
“With women, at a younger age fat is more concentrated around hips and thighs, and this is for childbearing reasons, but once menopause has been gone through, the fat tends to redistribute to the belly. Part of this is to do with changes in oestrogen levels.”
Solution: eat well, try resistance training and be kind to yourself.
“Even though we are predisposed to some abdominal fat, this isn’t an excuse to give up your health and fitness efforts,” Ben Lucas, person trainer and founder of Flow Athletic, told HuffPost Australia.
“One of the best ways to keep insulin levels in check is to increase resistance training. Exercises like boxing, heavy lifting, weighted squats, stretch bands and reformer Pilates require a lot of strength, which means that even after you’ve finished your session your body continues to utilise energy to recover.”
Even if you workout six days a week or control your calorie intake, if those calories are coming from junk foods, it can make overall weight and abdominal fat harder to shift. This is because not all calories are created equal.
“Eating a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and alcohol may lead to a fatty liver and weight gain around the midsection,” Tuck said. “Cravings for high fat, high sugar foods can also be a result of high cortisol levels.”
Solution: reduce sugar and refined carbohydrate intake, and check your stress levels.
“Aim for a 12-hour fast at night after eating and before breakfast. So, if you eat at 7pm, eat breakfast no earlier than 7am. This helps give the digestive system a rest and may be beneficial to those with insulin resistance and high blood lipids,” Tuck said.
“Increase green leafy veggies to increase magnesium in the diet as this can help with stress and blood sugar balance.
“Eat three regular meals and include protein, complex carbs and healthy fats to increase satiety and reduce the risk of snacking or overeating.”
“Alcohol is a big one as well, as it’s such a big contributor to calorie intake,” McLeod explained.
Popular alcoholic drinks can exceed 240 calories each, which is the same as a slice of pizza or a Mars Bar. In a night, if you’re having four or more drinks, that’s adding a huge 956 calories or more to your diet.
Solution: cut back on alcohol.
“Reduce alcohol to 12 drinks weekly,” Tuck said.
On top of regular hormones changing over time, some people, particularly women, may have an underlying hormone imbalance affecting their ability to lose weight.
“Hormonal imbalance, such as oestrogen and androgen imbalance, may increase the likelihood of thickening around the midsection,” Tuck said.
One common hormonal disorder is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is characterised by several symptoms caused by high levels of androgens, or ‘male’ hormones.
“PCOS can be responsible for insulin resistance where glucose is not taken up by the cells and used for energy, but instead deposited in fat cells,” Lucas said.
Solution: see a medical professional.
“If you’re finding weight hard to budge despite exercise and dietary changes, you may want to seek the advice of your general practitioner or naturopath who can prescribe blood tests to help address the bigger picture,” Lucas said.
“Cortisol directly affects fat storage and weight gain in stressed or adrenal-fatigued people, and fat can be stored around the midsection as visceral and subcutaneous fat tissue,” Tuck said.
But it’s not just work, family life or money problems which can cause stress in the body. Excessive exercise can be quite stressful, causing excess cortisol (the stress hormone) production, which often causes weight gain.
Solution: manage stress levels and reduce stimulants.
“Cut down on stimulants (which can put strain on the nervous system and adrenal glands), particularly coffee and caffeine,” Tuck said.
“Aim for one coffee a day and avoid drinking caffeine after 12pm. Increase herbal teas such as chamomile, lavender, ashwagandha and ginseng to support the nervous system.
“Look at ways to manage stress if stress levels are high. For example, try mindfulness, meditation, yoga and walks.”
When we think ‘abs’, we often believe we have to do 1,000 crunches a day. Unfortunately, spot reduction isn’t effective.
“You cannot focus weight loss to just one particular area. However, strengthening the core and abs can help to tighten and tone the muscles in the abdominal area,” Tuck said.
Solution: focus on full body exercises and high intensity interval training.
“Surprisingly, full body exercises are more effective for reducing belly fat for a specific region,” Lucas said.
“For example, even if the target is the abdomen, cable machine lateral rotation involves activating the core, but also uses the strength of your arms and glutes which helps to burn fat, but also tone your abdomen.
“Anti-rotation is also effective and is more targeted for the abdomen. If you don’t have a cable machine, stretch bands work similarly and activate multiple muscle groups while also working on the abdomen.”
“There are a number of medical conditions that may influence weight around the belly such as Cushing’s syndrome and liver disease, as well as some medications,” Tuck said.
“With something like metabolic syndrome, one of the factors is carrying extra abdominal weight or having an elevated waist circumference,” McLeod added. “Often people with type 2 diabetes or who are generally overweight will be carrying extra weight around the stomach. It’s a perpetuating cycle.”
Solution: see a medical professional.
“Seek professional advice to rule out any underlying health condition,” Tuck said.
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