How to lose that belly fat

Reviewed by our expert panel
How to lose that belly fat

Fat around the mid-section can be bad news. But you need to lose weight all over if you want to lose it from your waist.

Our bodies are designed to store fat for release during times when there is not enough food. Because we have such an abundance of food available to us, when we ‘store fat’ (i.e. put on weight), it tends to stay stored and after a while our fat cells increase in size and multiply in response. This increase in body fat, particularly if it occurs around the waist, can alter glucose (sugar) and fat metabolism, and the way your body uses the hormone insulin. These metabolic changes can increase your risk of certain health problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Research shows males with a waistline measuring more than 94cm and females whose waists measure more than 80cm are at increased risk of developing these health complications.

There are two kinds of fat surrounding your midsection: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous (which means ‘under the skin’) fat is the stuff you can pinch, while visceral fat surrounds the vital organs in the stomach area. Excess visceral fat pushes the stomach outwards and is what leads to a pot or beer belly. Surprisingly, it’s the visceral fat that has been linked to health risks. And for many people, especially those who are ‘apple-shaped’ (they store fat around their waist) as opposed to ‘pear-shaped’ (they store fat around their bottom and thighs), the extra fat around the waist is caused by visceral fat.

So why is it some of us tend to gain weight around our midsections? There is no single answer. Instead, the appearance of a pot belly involves many factors, such as hormones, genes, eating habits, physical activity patterns and stress.

Hormones: Testosterone predisposes men to accumulate fat around their abdomen, while the female hormone oestrogen causes fat to be stored around the hips, butt and thighs. And, as oestrogen levels reduce during and after menopause, women also begin to store fat around their abdomen.

Stress: When exposed to chronic stress, the body is literally bathed in a flood of the stress hormone called cortisol. Excess amounts of cortisol increase the likelihood of storing fat around the middle.

Genetics: Each person is genetically programmed to store fat in differing proportions around the body.

Eating habits: Diets high in energy-dense foods and fat are more likely to promote visceral fat. Drinking too much of any kind of alcohol (not just beer) has the same effect. Alcohol is high in kilojoules and increases appetite, leading to unnecessary eating and weight gain.

Physical activity: Being physically active helps to reduce the amount of total body fat we carry (which includes visceral fat in the belly area). And the more exercise we do, the more overall fat we’ll lose.

Many people spend hours doing sit-ups, crunches and other abdominal exercises in the hope of reducing that spare tire. Sit-ups are great for strengthening your abdominal muscles and lower back, but they have no impact on the body fat stored in those areas. Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise is the only way your body breaks down fat, which includes the fat around your internal organs. If you want to lose weight from your waist, you need to lose it all over.

  • For fat loss, you need to do 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and tennis on most days of the week. If you struggle to find the time, schedule in shorter sessions, but keep your heart beating fast during the activities.
  • Using a pedometer (a simple device that measures how many steps you take) can help you make sure you’re getting enough activity in your day. For many, walking 10,000 steps a day is enough to maintain your weight, but if you want to drop kilos, you’ll need to do more.
  • After 10 to 12 weeks of exercise, you should notice a big change in your waist size. After this time, stay with the fitness plan but increase the frequency, intensity or time of your workout to suit your new fitness levels.

As you whittle away your belly, not only will your general health improve, but you will be on your way to a whole new wardrobe!

First published: May 2008

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