Getting in shape isn’t just about working out and burning calories. It’s also essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle and understanding that not all body fat is created equal. It’s stored in our bodies differently, therefore it’s important to know the habits that contribute to expanding our waistline and how to stop it.
“We have two types of fat – the outer layer, Subcutaneous Fat and the inner layer, Visceral Fat. This is the fat around the organs and while there is a need for some of it to protect our organs, too much visceral fat can be extremely dangerous and contribute to Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular, metabolic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” explains Binay Curtis, NTP, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner.
Jillian Michaels, personal trainer, nutritionist, life coach and former Biggest Loser fitness instructor, says “Visceral fat is fat stored in the abdominal cavity between your organs such as the pancreas, liver, kidneys, intestines and other organs. While hormones do play a role in where the body stores fat, you can impact this for better or worse. The bottom line and most important thing is to avoid overeating and being sedentary.”
Visceral fat can pack on the pounds and Eat This, Not That! Health talked to experts who revealed the worst habits that lead to visceral fat. Read the tips below to find out what bad behaviors to avoid—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
To help live a healthier lifestyle, it’s important to learn about the fats in our body and Dr. J. Wes Ulm, MD, Ph.D. Physician-scientist and professional musician (J. Wes Ulm and Kant’s Konundrum) gives an in depth explanation of what visceral fat is.
“Visceral fat is the technical term for the fatty deposits within the adipocytes (fat-bearing cells) of the abdomen — more precisely, within the peritoneal cavity — that, in excess, lead to what’s colloquially referred to as the “beer gut” or “spare tire.” The descriptive term “visceral” is used to distinguish it from fat stores in other locations, for example beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) or around the hips, legs, and buttocks. It’s not harmful in-and-of-itself, and in controlled quantities common throughout human history before the “era of caloric surplus” in which we now find ourselves. In fact, there’s a solid physiological reason that our bodies have evolved to store and carry fat in convenient locations: It serves as an efficient, easily mobilizable store of energy while also cushioning and insulating our visceral (abdominal) organs, particularly in the form of the mesenteric fat associated with the folds of the peritoneum (the tissue lining that surrounds and attaches to our abdominal organs). This energetic “savings bank” proved to have a survival advantage amid the many famines throughout human history, but alas, our fat storage capacity has become maladaptive in the midst of high caloric density foods available in abundance. Caloric excesses are stored in the adipocytes through both hyperplasia and hypertrophy, through which the fat cells multiple and increase in size, respectively. The higher and more prolonged the caloric surpluses, the more often these processes take place.”
Dr. Ulm says, “The answer to this is synonymous with the reasons that the obesity epidemic in America — with the US near the top of global charts in the proportion of obese adults and children — is so damaging to the country’s collective health. Excess visceral fat, in the form of truncal obesity (a.k.a. central obesity), is an independent risk factor linked to a host of serious chronic health issues, even irrespective of its association with other unhealthy habits, especially inadequate exercise. Its ill health effects are best summarized by a multi-disorder condition called the metabolic syndrome, in which central obesity is thought to be instrumental (though the cause-and-effect, “chicken-and-egg” relationships are still debated). This syndrome entails a harmful physiological state called insulin resistance, in which peripheral tissues — above all skeletal muscle — lose their sensitivity to insulin, which normally provokes the responsive cells to soak up circulating blood sugars, in particular glucose. (Some tissues, like the brain and liver, can take in glucose without insulin.) The result is Type 2 diabetes, and both this and the obesity itself are further associated with high blood pressure and dysregulation in plasma lipids (i.e. varieties of packaged fat in the blood) — particularly inadequate HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and high levels of triglycerides (a “bad” type of lipid).
All of these in turn are linked to elevated risks of atherosclerosis (fatty buildup in artery walls) and serious cardiovascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks. Heart disease and diabetes are among the most prevalent conditions in America causing high morbidity and mortality, with the US having a markedly lower life expectancy than other developed countries (even before the COVID-19 pandemic), and high levels of central obesity are a major factor. Of note, men biologically tend to deposit more of their fat stores viscerally (becoming “apple-shaped” in excess) while pre-menopausal women tend to be more “pear-shaped,” with greater fat distribution in the thighs, hips, and buttocks. Incredibly, when accounting for confounding factors, men’s relatively greater visceral fat deposition is nearly sufficient in itself to account for their higher risk of heart disease!”
The foods we consume play a key role in visceral fat. Michaels says, “Things with white flour, white sugar, white salt all have a negative impact on your waistline. Instead opt for the obvious – whole grains instead of processed grains, natural sugars like fruit instead of processed white sugar.”
Curtis adds, “Snacks high in sugar will lead to increased weight gain and wreak havoc in your body. Check out the amount of sugar in foods. You’d be surprised to note that even vegetable juice can be high in sugar! Aim to eat foods and consume drinks with less than 6g of sugar per serving.”
Imashi Fernando, MS, RDN, Brown Sugar Nutrition states, “Ultra-processed sugary snacks like cookies, pies, regular sodas, juice cocktails and sugary breakfast cereals contain a ton of added sugars, which when eaten trigger our bodies to release pleasure hormones like dopamine and serotonin. These hormones have been associated with increased addictive behaviors, like craving more sugar, which makes it difficult to stop binging on sugary snacks. The liver converts excess sugar from our diet into fats that are then stored primarily around the liver and abdomen, increasing visceral fat.”
Fernando suggests a better solution for snacking is to “satisfy sweet cravings with fruit or homemade frozen fruit treats. Fruit contains naturally occurring sugars that do not have the same effect as added sugars do. Fruit also contains fiber which helps fill us up faster and prevents high blood sugars and the sugar crash that typically would follow a sugary snack binge.”
If you’re trying to get rid of your gut, try eliminating or cutting back on alcohol.
“Surely you’ve heard the term beer belly?,” Michaels asks. “Not only does it add extra unnecessary calories but it dampens fat metabolism by up to 73% because of its impact on our hormone balance.”
Dr. Mahek Shah, MD, MBA, MS – Managing Partner at WTM Advisors and Associate Faculty at Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham Health says, “Especially as the holidays arise and you’re excited about getting together with friends and family to be together IRL, drinking too many calories by overindulging with alcoholic beverages can lead to a build up of visceral fat. It can often be between 100-200 per serving, up to 300 for some cocktails that also contain mixers and simple syrup (sugar + water). Instead, drinker lighter beers (lagers) vs IPAs or Belgian Tripels or swap out one cocktail for a simple vodka soda or gin n tonic which has less sugar than say a Shirley Temple or Old Fashioned. Swapping one round with something with soda can prevent your 2022 with those added pounds.
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Working late nights and not getting enough sleep isn’t just exhausting, it can add pounds according to Michaels. “Again it all comes back to hormones. Lack of sleep increases our hunger hormones and dampens our satiety hormones making us feel the need to eat more. In addition, it inhibits our HGH production, which is a key hormone for muscle maintenance and fat metabolism. Lack of sleep is also associated with higher cortisol levels which is a hormone notorious for belly fat storage. So make sure to shut off the screens and get 7 to 8 hours of shut eye every night.”
Managing stress is crucial in shedding the pounds. Michaels explains, “That hormone I just mentioned, cortisol, is known as the stress hormone. And when we work too hard for too long without taking our vacations and holidays it takes a toll – releasing more cortisol than is healthy for us. Be sure to focus on your work life balance to help keep your weight stable and your belly fat down.”
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While working remotely or in an office, Michaels reminds us to stay active as much as possible. She says, “I know I know… This isn’t a habit, it’s a job. However you can counteract that by exercising regularly and incorporating as much activity into your day as possible. Walk the dog. Take the stairs. Stand while you’re waiting instead of sitting down. All of the above messages have a huge difference. Exercise and physical activities are the top way to re-sensitize our bodies to insulin, which not only burns excess fat in general but helps to manage that dangerous visceral fat.”
Get up and start moving.
Dr. Ulm says, “This one likely needs little introduction. Although there are many complicating factors in how the equation plays out day-by-day, body weight is ultimately a factor of calories ingested minus calories expended. The human body does burn a significant stock of this energy for its general housekeeping activities, encapsulated in the calculation of the BMR — the basal metabolic rate. However, calorie-dense American diets in particular tend to far exceed the BMR’s caloric expenditures, which means that exercise is needed to burn off the rest. When a person takes in a caloric surplus, those extra calories are used to build additional tissue. A resistance athlete doing heavy weight training will add muscle, but for the most part, the body’s efficient energy-storage machinery kicks in to stock the excess calories as visceral fat.”
Cut down on your food intake.
According to Dr. Ulm, “The American diet as of 2021 has become notorious for the gigantic plates and the contents that fill those plates. Combine this with the high caloric density of the food items consumed, and you have a formula for significant daily caloric excesses well above caloric expenditures. The long hours for so many living the workaholic, high-stress American lifestyle contributes to this overeating, with food consumption often used as a pressure-relief valve which, unfortunately, has deleterious consequences for health.”
Dr. Ulm suggests adopting a few lifestyle changes to help avoid visceral fat.
“As stressful as long workdays and family and financial pressures can be, even light exercise can do wonders for reducing obesity and overall health. In addition to its direct effect in boosting calorie expenditure, exercise reduces stress — one of the contributors to virtually all the aforementioned bad habits — while boosting mood. And both aerobic exercise and resistance training can be helpful, the latter by increasing muscle mass and baseline caloric burning. To inject a personal example here, I have persistent asthma — fortunately now well-managed — stemming from complications of a devastating pertussis infection (whooping cough) that I contracted as a doctor on hospital duty in the mid-2000s. During my worst periods, even mild aerobic exercise was taxing, and I fretted over the potential weight gain tacked onto all the other health issues I was tackling. But I found I was still able to lift weights to a decent degree before tiring, even if only in a sparse home gym, and the extra muscle mass helped to mitigate the weight gain from my reduced physical inactivity.
In addition to increasing physical activity, a health booster in many different facets, portion control is key. Don’t feel obligated to eat every morsel on your plate — leftovers can save you time, money, and hassle in preparing meals. One of the bonuses here is that you can still allow an occasional splurge of guilty pleasures like chocolate or cherry pie, so long as you spread it out over an extended period. I’ve trained myself to make a single slice of apple pie last three days, for instance, which satisfies my sweet tooth while minimizing the calories from dessert. Intermittent fasting can be helpful for some people, though make sure to do it cautiously and consult with a physician especially if extending it to a full day or more; you want to make sure your body can handle it metabolically, as some people may have subtle genetic disorders affecting energy reserve production (chiefly through liver-mediated processes called glycogenolysis and gluconeogenesis) which may not be evident outside of high metabolic stresses in adulthood. Try yoga, deep breathing, and social activities to further minimize stress. Finally, moderate your alcohol intake and snacking, and if you are going to snack, make it healthy! If you experiment with cruciferous vegetables, nuts, and low-carb fruits like strawberries, you might find yourself enjoying your snack outings a little more!” And to protect your life and the lives of others, don’t visit any of these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.