What is belly fat and why is it dangerous?
Belly fat, as the name suggests, is excess weight carried around your middle.
When medical professionals refer to belly fat, they are referring to visceral fat as opposed to subcutaneous fat. In simple terms, this means fat that is stored deeper within your body, closer to your organs.1
Visceral fat is generally acknowledged to be more dangerous than subcutaneous fat.
Studies have shown that carrying visceral fat around the abdomen increases the risk of a number of serious health complaints. These include heart disease, diabetes, strokes and high blood pressure. Recent studies also suggest a link between belly fat and cancer.2
Various studies have looked into the reasons behind excess tummy weight and why some people might be more prone to it than others. Hormones, age, gender and genetics have all been suggested.1
So far, the only factors confirmed to affect visceral fat levels are diet, weight and activity levels.3 The best way to shake off unwanted belly fat is to work towards a healthy weight and an active lifestyle.
Calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI)4 is a common way to establish whether you are overweight. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to look after your health.5
However, it’s actually possible to be within a healthy BMI range, but still be carrying visceral fat around your middle.6
If you want to know if you have too much belly fat, you should also consider your waist measurement. A healthy waist circumference for men is less than 94cm (37 inches), while for women it's less than 80cm (32 inches).2
4 ways to reduce belly fat
1. Maintain a healthy diet
There is no such thing as a ‘belly fat diet plan’, however eating a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients is a crucial step towards improving your overall wellbeing.
This means eating a variety of healthy options from the five main food groups: fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, proteins, fats, and dairy (or dairy alternatives).7
Although some studies suggest that a high-protein diet can help reduce visceral fat,8 there is not yet enough research to confirm this is the case.
Nonetheless, eating enough protein, and getting it from the right sources, can certainly help you on your weight loss journey. Protein-rich foods will keep you feeling fuller for longer, which can reduce hunger and in turn your overall calorie intake.9
Protein is also essential to an active lifestyle. It provides energy and is used to grow and repair our bodies, including muscles.
Healthy sources of protein include:
- Beans, peas and lentils
- Cheese, yoghurt and milk
- Fish, including oily fish like salmon or mackerel
- Tofu, tempeh and other plant-based meat-alternatives
- Lean cuts of meat and mince
- Chicken and other poultry10
Build your meals around high fibre starchy foods and be sure to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Opt for lean proteins, complex carbohydrates and good fats.
Complex carbohydrates, also known as starchy foods, release energy slowly and help to regulate our blood sugar levels.11
Starchy foods should make up just over a third of the food you eat. Examples of healthy options include:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
- Wholegrain pasta
- Wholemeal breads12
Fat is an essential macronutrient that our bodies need to function. However, fat becomes an issue when we eat too much and when we eat the wrong kinds.
Not all fats are created equal. If you want to lose weight, try to reduce the levels of trans and saturated fats in your diet. (This information can usually be found on food packaging.)
Instead of opting for low-fat options, which can be high in sugar or additives, choose foods rich in healthy fats, which can actually boost your health.
Foods containing healthy fats include:
- Olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils
- Oily fish13
Practise portion control, eat a wide variety of foods and pay attention to what you are eating and drinking. Mindful eating can be a powerful tool for weight loss.14
2. Cut down on sugar
If you’re eating a lot of foods containing added sugar, you’re probably consuming what are often referred to as ‘empty calories’. This means food with a high calorie count that doesn’t provide many other nutrients. Cutting down on sugar, in particular added sugar, can reduce caloric intake and help you to lose weight.15
A surprising amount of sugar in our diets comes from drinks.16 Cut back on fizzy drinks, squash, energy drinks and sports drinks, which can all contain high levels of sugar. If you take sugar in tea or coffee, try replacing it with a sweetener.
Fruit juices and smoothies also contain high levels of sugar. You should limit your intake to only 150ml per day.
Alcohol is also very high in sugar – and calories. Cutting down on alcohol consumption can have various health benefits; weight loss is just one of them.18
3. Mix strength training and cardio
There are no specific exercises that target belly fat, so instead opt for a whole-body approach. Studies show that a combination of cardio and strength training can lead to greater weight loss than just one or the other.19
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) combines strength and cardio and has been praised for its numerous health benefits. It can help you to get into shape quickly and is an accessible form of exercise for most people. Some research has suggested it may even target belly fat.20
4. Reduce your stress
Looking after your mental wellbeing can have physical benefits too. Stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue are all factors that can contribute to weight gain, as well as making it harder for you to lose weight.21
Meditation and mindfulness can help to de-stress and improve your mood. You should also make sure to do things that make you happy, such as spending time with loved ones or keeping up with a hobby.
Making sure you get enough sleep can also help to improve your mental health. Improving your sleep hygiene is a great way to encourage a restful night’s sleep.
This can be as simple as reducing your caffeine intake, avoiding electronic devices before bed, or sticking to a bedtime schedule. A relaxing night time ritual, such as reading or meditation, can also help you wind down.
Next steps after weight loss
Sometimes after a dramatic weight loss, you can be left with excess skin around the stomach. A procedure called an abdominoplasty, more commonly known as a tummy tuck, can be performed to remove loose skin and fat.
The Consultant's View
Consultant Plastic, Reconstructive and Cosmetic Surgeon Mr Peter Budny, from The Chiltern Hospital, The Shelburne Hospital and The Saxon Clinic, offers advice on tummy tuck surgery.
When there have been major changes in size and weight, the elastic fibres in the tissues are like broken springs and no end of other techniques will make them return to their usual shape.
Removal of the loose overhanging skin becomes really the only way forward.
However, the surgery is dependent on good prior weight loss.