Belly fat is such an important (and dangerous) factor for your overall health that it’s now discussed as an organ. The visceral fat that makes up a spare tire or, worse, a beer belly—and that surrounds your liver, stomach, and intestines—isn’t flabbily inert. It appears to be biologically active, pumping out hormones and other substances, and it may even increase your risk of metabolic problems like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and maybe even cancer.
That’s most scary for the 35 percent of American men categorized as obese—guys who have a body-mass index (BMI) of 30-plus. It’s also a concern for the 38 percent of guys classified as overweight, whose BMI is in the 25 to 29.9 range.
But even men sporting modest paunches are at risk. Yup, Dad Bods, Skinny Fat dudes, Beer Belly Light guys—maybe even you. Recent Mayo Clinic research shows that men who are in the normal range (with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9) but have fat in their midsection are up to four times as likely as leaner men to have metabolic disorders. “Why some people predominantly carry fat in visceral deposits isn’t fully understood,” says Paul Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Metabolism at Rockefeller University in New York. “There clearly are genetic and hormonal influences.”
While researchers learn more about how fat harms you, they’re also finding new ways to fight it. And it may not take much to reduce your health risks, according to a new, albeit small, study in Obesity. When people who had a normal BMI but excess body fat lost 5 percent of body weight, they saw major benefits: visceral fat down 11 percent, total fat down 9 percent, liver fat down 50 percent, and insulin sensitivity up 26 percent. If you weigh 200 pounds, losing 5 percent means shedding just 10 pounds. These four tips make it a little easier. Get after it!
1. Build muscle to fight fat
“Muscle is the opposite of fat,” says Mayo Clinic cardiologist Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D. All over your body, muscle is metabolically active in ways that counteract visceral fat—extracting glucose from your blood, helping your liver process fatty acids, and reducing inflammation. Dr. Lopez-Jimenez and his colleagues have found that people with big guts often lack lower-body muscle mass, and the correlation is stronger as people age. It stands to reason: Strong muscles add bulk to your legs and butt—your biggest muscle groups—providing a better balance of muscle to fat in your body and powering a healthier metabolism.
How to burn more fat
If you have to choose one type of exercise, strength training may be best for specifically trimming your gut. In a Harvard study, men who did 20 minutes of daily weight training had less of an increase in age-related abdominal fat than men who spent the same amount of time doing aerobic activities. Emphasize exercises that challenge your whole body: squats, deadlifts, pullups. However, the same study found cardio had a greater impact on overall weight. Dr. Lopez-Jimenez suggests a mix of both, but combine them the right way by alternating cardio and weight training on different days. Men who do that may burn more visceral fat than they would by stacking workouts on top of each other in the same session.
2. Outsmart your brain
Belly flab may be due as much to what happens in your head as in your gut. Losing visceral fat is difficult because your body defends fat like a castle on a very round hill, through the processing of hormones in brain circuits that control appetite. That’s because in evolutionary/survival terms, fat is good. It seems to be your body’s inherent system for stockpiling food, and it served mankind well when actual, edible stores were meager. Your ancestors who could sock away the most fat from the least food and release its energy in the most frugal, thrifty way possible had a genetic advantage. Your prepare-for-the-worst body isn’t in sync with the indulge-every-whim bounty of food markets and restaurants—or the lack of exertion that comes from neither hunting nor gathering.
Over the years, your body matches energy intake and output with about 99 percent accuracy, says Michael Schwartz, M.D., codirector of the Diabetes Institute at the University of Washington. But even a finely tuned system can’t compensate for gradual gains from endless calorie bombardment. As a rough estimate, “most obese people don’t gain more than five pounds of fat a year, but that adds up over ten years,” says Dr. Schwartz.
Hack your metabolism
Evidence suggests that keeping calorie consumption confined to an earlier window means less weight gain than eating more later in the day. One new study tested the 16:8 diet—16 hours of fasting and 8 of eating. Researchers instructed 23 obese participants to eat any food in any amount between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., but stick to water and calorie-free drinks at other times. After 12 weeks, volunteers ate about 300 fewer calories a day than a control group and lost about 3 percent of their body weight—enough to cause a discernible drop in visceral fat compared with the control. No participants leaving the study complained about the diet, so it’s likely that volunteers found it fairly easy to stick with. Researchers say that’s critical for improving metabolic health in a sustainable way.
3. Nurture your inner rain forest
One of the most important parts of your metabolism is your microbiome—the ecosystem of gut bacteria that break down food and produce chemicals that may prevent obesity, likely by reducing inflammation. A healthy microbiome should be like a rain forest. A big-belly microbiome is kind of barren. The key difference is biodiversity. “Obese people have fewer species of microbes in their gut,” says Dan Knights, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Biotechnology Institute. “These microbes are like a factory producing thousands of compounds, good and bad. You want to provide food for the microbes making good compounds.”
How to eat wilder
To restore your inner Amazon, eat food closer to nature. “Most Americans are living in a fiber desert,” Knights says. “Every plant has its own set of fibers, with different chemical structures and different microbes that break them down.” Aim for about 30 grams per day. Fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are linked to a rise in short-chain fatty acids, which may reduce your risk of inflammation and metabolic problems. In one study, each ten-gram increase in daily fiber intake was associated with a 3.7 percent drop in visceral fat. Supplementing can help: Add two tablespoons of psyllium husks to your cereal or salad. Knights snacks on Nu’Go dLish bars, which deliver 12 grams of fiber from diverse sources.
4. Change the nature of your fat
Not all body fat is harmful. Visceral fat is white fat—a type associated with an unhealthy metabolism. But another kind—brown fat—burns calories and helps the body generate heat. We don’t have a lot of brown fat and lose it as we get older, says Dr. Cohen. Preliminary research also suggests that as you gain girth, you may actively switch healthy brown fat to unhealthy white fat.
Turn the fat color wheel
If brown fat can turn white, can white fat turn brown? It’s a hot area of research. Investigators have found a third type of fat called beige fat that can be activated so it has fat-burning power. “Beige fat tends to be embedded in subcutaneous fat, which may be why subcutaneous fat is relatively benign and may even be protective,” Dr. Cohen says. “Our dream is to find a pharmacological target—five to ten years away—that would turn unhealthy white fat to healthy brown fat.” You may already have a natural way to make beige fat brown. New research suggests you can turn on the beige-fat furnace by notching your home’s thermostat down to 66 or below for ten hours a day. Cold temps activate beige fat to keep you warm.
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