Why it matters?
In our bodies we carry two different types of fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat is found beneath the skin, and is the "pinchable" fat with which most of us are familiar. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is found much deeper within the body, underneath muscles and among our vital organs.
Studies have shown that visceral fat is much more dangerous to our health, linked to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, because of its ability to produce chemicals and hormones that interfere with the way our organs function. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, even participants with normal BMIs who carried excess fat around their middles had a higher risk of death than those with smaller midsections.
The good news is that by adopting healthy diet and making some lifestyle changes, visceral fat will be the first fat burned off when you start losing weight, and you will often see results in your belly before any other body part.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation offers waist circumference guidelines and proper measuring techniques here.
What to eat
Though weight loss will always come down to a simple calories in, calories out equation, there are several studies out there that indicate that adding certain foods to your diet can help support healthy weight loss.
Whole grains such as brown rice, barley and oatmeal have been shown to encourage weight loss because of their added fibre, which can slow down digestion leaving you feeling fuller longer, while also keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels in check. By switching out the refined carbs in your diet for these grainier goodies, you can make a big difference in the nutritional content of your diet and way your body processes each meal.
Dairy products are often the first to go when we put ourselves on a new weight loss plan, however, recent studies suggest that low-fat and non-fat dairy products do indeed have a place in a calorie-reduced diet. A recent review out of the University of Copenhagen found that in 13 previous studies an increased dairy calcium intake helped participants lost body fat and stomach fat at a greater rate than in low-dairy and non-dairy control groups.
A diet including regular consumption of monounsaturated fats, the "good fats" found in olive, sesame and canola oils, avocados, nuts, and peanut butter has been found to help send signals to the body to burn off and reduce storage of belly fat. However, keep in mind that though these fats are a satisfying addition to a healthy diet, they do pack a high caloric punch and so much be used sparingly in order to achieve weight loss benefits.
What to avoid
Several studies have shown that people who include trans fats in their diet have an increased likelihood of gaining weight in their abdominal area. According to Health Canada, the main sources of trans fats in the Canadian diet come from margarines, commercially fried foods, and baked goods made with partially hydrogenated oils and fats such as crackers, cakes, cookies and French fries. By reading labels carefully and skipping the trans fat trap, you’ll not only reduce your likelihood of weight gain and fat storage, but also your risk of heart disease.
A recent British study found that smoking appeared to influence fat distribution in the bodies of its participants, increasing the accumulation of visceral fat around the midsection. It’s unclear at the moment why this happens, but scientists theorize that smoking negatively effects metabolism making it more difficult to burn fat and calories.
They don't call it a "beer belly" for nothing – alcohol can be a major culprit when it comes to increased belly fat, providing empty calories, slowing your metabolism, and increasing your appetite. You don't have to give up alcohol completely to lose belly fat, but by limiting yourself to one or two drinks in an evening and avoiding sugary liquors and cocktails you will be more likely to reach your weight loss goals.
The mind/body connection
Working toward a flat belly doesn't mean endless crunches and trips to the gym, but by increasing your physical activity whether it is by walking, biking, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you will increase your body's ability to burn fat and calories. Public Health Canada recommends at least one hour of physical activity a day to maintain your health, and the Heart and Stroke foundation encourages you to vary your routine to include activities that focus on endurance, strength and flexibility for optimal results. As an added bonus, regular exercise can also help combat stress, which is a culprit in increased cortisol levels linked to abdominal fat accumulation.
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