With one-third of Americans being overweight or obese, a flabby belly is not an uncommon sight these days. Many people consider weight gain to be a consequence of aging but it is not. Obesity affects all ages and childhood obesity is a worrying occurrence that is on the rise in the United States. Understanding why belly fat occurs and why it is dangerous may assist with understanding how to lose it.
What is Belly Fat?
Belly fat is a common way that most of us describe abdominal fat. The accumulation of fat in the abdominal wall becomes visible as a ‘flabby tummy’ or distended abdomen. This is known as subcutaneous fat, meaning fat under the skin. However, there is another type of fat that may accumulate around the organs in the abdominal cavity. This is known as visceral fat.
While subcutaneous fat can be seen and ‘pinched’, visceral fat lies deeper and is invisible from the outside. However, visceral fat appears to be more dangerous than superficial (subcutaneous) fat. People who are overweight or obese with a lot of belly fat will also have visceral fat but people who are lean or slim may have less subcutaneous fat yet they could still have visceral fat.
Read more on other causes of abdominal distension.
What Causes Belly Fat?
In order to understand why belly fat occurs, it is important to understand the metabolic activity in the body. Belly fat occurs for the same reason as excess weight gain. It is due to an imbalance between the calories that are being consumed in the form of food and calories being expended in the form of physical activity. Hormones may influence fat deposition but the root cause lies in a calorie imbalance.
The Fat Hormones
There are several hormones that play a role in fat deposition and accumulation. Firstly the thyroid hormones which are known to control metabolism can increase the likelihood of being overweight when these hormones are deficient (hypothyroidism). However, hypothyroidism causes only moderate weight gain.
The other important hormone in fat accumulation is insulin. When there is a rise in blood glucose levels, insulin is secreted by the pancreas. This hormone reduces the blood glucose levels by stimulating the liver to convert glucose into glycogen, forcing the cells to take in more glucose and by pushing more glucose into the larger storage form of fat.
Cortisol is a lesser known hormone that also plays a role in fat accumulation. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands that sit at the top of the kidneys. Fat accumulation increases when the cortisol levels are higher than normal. It is more frequently seen in conditions like Cushing syndrome and may be associated with the use of steroid drugs.
Lastly the male and female sex hormones also appear to influence fat accumulation in the belly. These hormones are more likely to be abnormally elevated in reproductive conditions and with the use of hormone therapy. It is one of the hormonal factors that influences fat accumulation in certain parts of the body like the abdomen, buttocks and thighs.
The Truth About Fat
Fat is the body’s way of storing excess calories for later use. There are different types of fats and fats have several important functions in the body, including lining the nerves, forming cell membranes and providing insulation for body heat. Therefore the human body does require some degree of fat but too much of fat leads to a host of problems that can eventually result in life-threatening complications.
It is important to understand that eating a fatty diet is not the sole cause of belly fat. While a fatty diet may have more calories, even a low fat diet that is high in calories will lead to fat accumulation in the belly. These days the problem often lies with excessive intake of carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates. These types of processed carbohydrates leads to a rapid rise in blood glucose levels that is more likely to lead to the conversion of the extra calories into fat tissue.
Dangers of Belly Fat
It is now known that while being overweight (BMI>25) or obese (BMI>30) is associated with several health complications, there is even greater danger with excess belly fat. The most common health conditions associated with excess belly fat are cardiovascular conditions like heart disease and strokes, and diabetes.
The link between abdominal circumference and cardiovascular disease and diabetes has been well established. Even if a person is within the normal weight range for their height (body mass index), a large abdominal circumference can still put them at risk of both cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. It is therefore not surprising that in a nation where obesity is reaching epidemic levels, cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States.
Obesity has also been linked to certain cancers, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gout, osteoarthritis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (one of the leading causes of female infertility), sleep apnea and other conditions. Some of these diseases are less serious than other but could in rare instances led to fatal complications.
Read more on obesity dangers.
Ways To Lose Belly Fat
Contrary to popular belief, abdominal exercises do not cause loss of belly fat. Any exercise will help with expending more calories and lead to overall fat loss but exercising targeting specific areas do not lead to fat loss in that area alone. At most abdominal exercises will help to tighten the abdominal muscles which may reduce the abdominal circumference slightly.
Instead the way to lose belly fat is to focus on the overall calorie balance. This may involve reducing calorie intake in foods or expending more calories through exercise. The glycemic index (GI) of foods is equally important as low GI foods will not cause a sharp rise in insulin levels which promotes fat accumulation.
Underlying medical conditions like low thyroid hormone levels or high cortisol levels also needs to be corrected. However, weight loss and therefore associated fat loss rests solely on the balancing of calorie input (foods) with calorie output (physical activity). This should be done under the supervision of a medical doctor in consultation with other health care professionals like dietitians.