Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Jelly Belly ?

Developing a tummy bulge is much more than a cosmetic problem

Everyone likes a flat tummy. You look better in your underwear, jeans and bathing suit. But there are more serious consequences to belly fat. That's because belly fat, also called visceral fat, is metabolically different from the subcutaneous fat under our skin that insulates us and keeps us warm. "Belly fat is like an endocrine organ," says Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of The South Beach Diet Supercharged. "Because of this, belly fat puts out a lot of chemicals, including inflammatory cytokines, which can injure normal tissue."

But belly fat wasn't always bad for us. In fact, early man benefited from a little extra fat around the middle. "It was a survival mechanism," he says. "Early man was always going through periods of feast and famine and without belly fat wouldn't have had any energy reserves."

The hormone insulin is a major player in the storage of fat and helps store excess food energy in a "fuel tank reserve" in the belly. But if you don't regularly burn off the belly fat, "as your belly fat swells, you develop insulin resistance," says Dr. Agatston. "This means even bigger swings in blood sugar, which makes you hungrier, so you eat more. What saved people in the wild is killing us today. We were never meant to be carrying around belly fat to this extent."

Fat Facts

You can think of fat cells as energy-storage sites. "Fat cells are like a sponge," says Pete McCall, M.S., an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "There are three times in your life when you will develop these fat cells, or storage sites: when you are in the uterus, during childhood at about age 4 or 5 and when you are an adolescent. If you're exposed to a high-fat diet in these stages, your body will produce more fat cells. You are training your body to take in more fat and store energy."

When we are babies, we also naturally have what is known as brown fat. Brown fat contains mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces energy, heat and blood flow. This is why it's present in babies, as a kind of natural insulation. But as we age, we lose our brown fat. Some people believe that if you could change white fat into brown fat, you would be able to lose weight more quickly, but to date there is no proven way to do this. Your best bet is to concentrate on the basics: diet and exercise.

Fat, Be Gone!

To help trim belly fat, look to your diet first. Dr. Agatston recommends avoiding refined carbohydrates (for example, sugar, white flour and products made with them; white potatoes; and pasta). He also suggests cutting out saturated fats (found primarily in fatty cuts of beef, lamb and pork; in poultry with the skin left on; and in high-fat dairy products) and trans fats found in stick margarines and vegetable shortenings (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils). Aim instead for the nutrient- and fiber-rich carbohydrates found in whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

"Your body digests these complex carbohydrates more slowly, so you don't get the exaggerated swings in blood sugar that you do with refined carbs. Consequently, you're not as hungry," he says.

The other important element in controlling belly fat is exercise. "The best exercise," says McCall, "is the kind people are going to do on a regular basis." For many, walking is one of the most effective ways to expend energy. "When we don't walk enough, things start to break down," says McCall. "It's like leaving your car sitting in the driveway for two years. If you try to drive it, it's not going to work very well." So it's important to make walking a daily habit. "Walking two to three miles a day is excellent," he says.

Dr. Agatston feels that interval training—alternating short bursts of intensive effort with easier recovery periods—is another good option. "When you work at a higher intensity for part of the time," he says, "you end up burning more calories and fat (including the fat in your belly) in less time than you would if you maintained a steady pace." And there's a bonus, Dr. Agatston says. "With interval training, the higher the intensity of the exercise, the longer you'll continue to burn fat and calories after you've completed your exercise session."

Dr. Agatston recommends doing interval walking outdoors or on a treadmill or elliptical-trainer for 20 minutes every other day, alternating with core-strengthening exercises.

Belly Fat vs. Subcutaneous Fat

Superficial fat, or Subcutaneous fat, which is found under the skin, is meant to keep us warm and maintain normal bodily functions. It doesn't produce the inflammatory chemicals that the visceral, or "belly", fat does.

Visceral fat is attached to the outside of our abdominal organs, including the stomach, liver, spleen and bowels. "Visceral fat interrupts the normal production of hormones such as insulin, which breaks down carbohydrates to be used as energy," says McCall. It also disrupts the normal chemical controls for your body, and that can lead to type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure."

Belly fat is a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration and cancer. It also is a frequent precursor to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and prediabetes. The bigger your waist is in relation to your hips, the more you may be at risk for these conditions. Typically, the risk is associated with a waist of 40 inches or greater in men and 35 inches or greater in women.

by Chrystle Fiedler
Remedy, March 2009, p.54

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