Between the print and TV ads and the pop-ups scuttling like mice from the four borders of your computer screen, belly fat seems to have surpassed global warming as our next great anxiety.
It’s clear these ads are aimed at women, some of whom fall for the hucksterism of what is for many little more than an annoying physiologic change occurring during a perfect storm of dietary indiscretion, genetic predisposition, and stress. As one patient laconically remarked, “My divorce from hell took a solid year. I finally got rid of him, but in the process…” (patting her tummy with both hands) “I got myself…this!”
Most men are more accepting of their bodies, regarding girth expansion with a shrug while adding some elastic to their belt-line from the Big-‘n-Tall section at Macy’s. Of course, men do as a group die younger, so maybe they should be a little less lackadaisical.
But without a doubt women are overly hard on themselves when it comes to the touchy subject of belly fat. No shortage of women has revealed to me how they “couldn’t show up at a health club” or “even consider a beach vacation” or “had to postpone the wedding” until they lost what seemed to me a pretty inconsequential and barely noticeable midriff expansion. Not surprisingly, when questioned further, these same women ‘fess up to the fact that their partners have never once mentioned the subject.
Many women, blinded by the rail-thin models that seem to dominate our culture, are unaware (or simply don’t believe) that un poco abdominal girth is part of the womanly shape that hits primitive triggers deep in the male brain regarding mate selection for reproduction. If you look at photos of sex bombshells from the past, like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, or Sophia Loren, or go farther back to the Gibson Girls or the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, the idea that to be sexy meant having the body of a skinny 14-year-old boy with breasts is a distinctly recent phenomenon.
Of course, it’s all a matter of degree. Women with a waist measurement of 35 inches or more are at risk for developing metabolic syndrome, boosting their chances for diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, and high blood pressure. The 35-inch+ group is also at greater risk of dying early from cancer or heart disease. If you’re a member, definitely schedule an appointment with our nutritionist Marla Feingold and let her help you pare down your apple. But otherwise try to cool it a little on the tummy fat.
Still, the question remains: Why do some of us, men and women alike, get belly fat while others don’t? Three factors seem responsible: genetics, stress, and dietary choices.
First, your risk of accumulating weight in your midsection is somewhat genetically predetermined. If, as either of your biological parents grew older, their waists expanded, recognize that your own waistline is a potential risk area. If mom or dad is pot-bellied, you’re likelier to make it a trio.
Second, the way you handle stress is a significant factor. All stressed mammals pack on the pounds. Whether you’re a deer in the woods sensing that winter brings food shortages or a human suffering through a hellish job or relationship, you’re programmed to store fat in preparation for the crisis ahead, whether it’s a real famine (no food) or a symbolic one (no job, no marriage). Your stress-responding adrenal glands go into high gear during stressful times, releasing excess cortisol, which alters your metabolism to store fat…guess where? At the same time, your thyroid gland, controlling your metabolic rate like the gas pedal on a Toyota, slows down to retain that belly fat despite your best efforts to burn it off.
Also when you’re under stress, your brain tries to manufacture more of the stress-buffering neurotransmitter serotonin. To accomplish this, it needs carbs. In no time, your brain’s mild request for carbs can turn to cravings.
And now, research confirms the third factor in belly fat accumulation: fast carbs.
Working with 69 overweight but otherwise healthy men and women, Barbara A. Gower, PhD, associate professor of nutrition science at the University of Alabama, began by using DXA (dual-emission x-ray absorptiometry) and CT scanning to actually measure the depth of her subjects’ abdominal fat, both superficial and the difficult-to-lose “deep fat.” Given what we know about Alabama and obesity, Dr. Gower probably had little difficulty locating people for her research.
Everyone in her study followed one of two weight-reduction diets. The first was a common low-calorie, low-fat diet. The second was a low-calorie, carb-restricted program, focusing especially on high-glycemic carbs including refined-flour foods (baked goods, white and refined wheat bread, white pasta, etc), also sometimes called fast carbs because they’re absorbed and turn to sugar quickly after you eat them. This skyrockets your blood sugar before the inevitable crash, when you feel hungry all over again.
Although both of Dr Gower’s groups lost weight, when the subjects were re-scanned, the fast carb-restricted group had lost significantly more abdominal fat. And those who remained on this program kept it off permanently.
Then, right on the heels of the Alabama study, a second study was released by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina (another of our not-so-svelte states). Again using CT and DXA scanners, but this time tracking 1,114 overweight individuals, researchers found when subjects increased their intake of soluble fiber foods (low-glycemic carbs, like veggies, fruit, and legumes) and exercised moderately (30 minutes of cardio four times a week), the scans showed definite and often dramatic reductions in the deep abdominal fat layer.
So here you are, sitting at your screen, reading this. Cast your eyes slightly below your keyboard right now and then use a tape measure to check your waist size at navel height. If your number is under 35 inches, then God bless. If you don’t like what you see, first blame mom (since she’s not there to defend herself) and then examine your stressful, fast carb-filled life and consider what changes you can make on both accounts.
For real results, reduce your junk carbs, bump up soluble fiber, and head for the gym.
David Edelberg, MD