While excess body fat anywhere in our bodies can set off alarm bells for those trying to keep in shape, belly fat is by far the type to be most worried about. That is because this fat is related to high triglycerides, low high-density lipoprotein, high blood pressure, obesity, and insulin resistance. With a cluster of any three of these—a condition called metabolic syndrome—risk of cardiovascular disease substantially increases. Studies have also linked abdominal fat with dementia.
Although large fat cells in the abdominal area can lead to diseases, our regular, small fat cells perform some important functions. They are the source of stored fuel for the body to use for energy and the source of some beneficial hormones that control metabolism, protect against diabetes, and play a role in learning and memory. Yes, everyone needs some body fat. Most adults need about 20 percent of the diet to be from fat, and athletes need fat to contribute 30 percent of calories.
So, why is abdominal fat so bad for us? Scientists are just getting to the bottom of this phenomenon, but in general, we know that large abdominal adipose cells are more metabolically active than adipose cells elsewhere in the body. They can cause higher levels of triglycerides in the blood.
When triglycerides in the blood are high, it can inhibit the actions of insulin receptors on the surface of cells other than fat cells. Then less glucose goes inside to be used as cellular energy, and instead, stays in the bloodstream. And, when glucose in the blood reaches high levels, diabetes will likely result. The classic indicators of diabetes are frequent urge to drink water, eat and urinate.
So, when does belly fat become unhealthy? Women’s waist size should measure no more than 35 inches, and men’s no more than 40 inches. So what to do to reduce abdominal fat: exercise and reduce calories. Particularly, recent research seems to underscore that smaller waist circumference is related to increased fruits and vegetables, and whole grains rather than refined. Add olive oil, low-fat dairy, meats, and fish, and you roughly have a Mediterranean diet.
Diets for weight reduction may add or subtract certain important food groups, such as the vegetarian very low-fat Ornish diet, or the high protein-fat and low carbs Atkins diet. Research has shown that these diets both work for short-term weight loss, but not well for the long term. Rather than adding or subtracting food groups, a balanced diet with reduced total caloric intake ultimately matters most for weight reduction.
One diet does not fit all. To be successful at losing weight you need to make your diet varied, healthful, and tasty for the long term. Your age, sex, general health, and fitness level will factor into deciding a program for you. For example, the DASH diet works well for those with high blood pressure. To be sure you are getting the nutrients your body needs, consult with a dietitian or nutritionist. And to be sure you are getting the appropriate exercise, consult with a personal trainer or other exercise specialist.
- Nelms, Marcia; Sucher, Kathryn, and Long, Sara. Nutrition Therapy and Pathophysiology, Thompson/Wadsworth, US 2007.
- Halkjaer, Jytte. PhD; Tjønneland, Anne, MD, PhD; Overvad, Kim, MD, PhD; Sørenen, I.A. Thorkld, DrMedSci. Dietary predictors of 5-year changes in waist circumference. J. Amer. Dietetic Assoc., Aug. 2009; 109(8):1356-1366.
For more information contact Trudy Miller, Food Instructor, MS DTR, ADA Certified in Weight Management at (775) 787-9010.