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By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

The dangers of belly fat and 4 ways to lose it

Carrying excess fat around the waist is associated with various health risks. But why is belly fat so dangerous? And what are the different ways to lose it?

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.

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.

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.

So far, the only factors confirmed to affect visceral fat levels are diet, weight and activity levels. 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) 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.

However, it’s actually possible to be within a healthy BMI range, but still be carrying visceral fat around your middle.

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. 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).

The best way to shake off unwanted belly fat is to work towards a healthy weight and an active lifestyle.

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). Although some studies suggest that a high-protein diet can help reduce visceral fat, 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.

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
  • Eggs
  • Tofu, tempeh and other plant-based meat-alternatives
  • Lean cuts of meat and mince
  • Chicken and other poultry

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.

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
  • Oats
  • Wholemeal bread

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.

Saturated fats are defined by their molecular structure. In real terms, they tend to be fats from animal sources (the notable exception being ‘tropical oils’ from coconut or palm) and are solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are typically from plant sources and are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats can be further divided in poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. In food terms, lard or dripping is a typical example of a predominantly saturated fat. Olive oil is rich in mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fish oils are a good example of a poly-unsaturated fat.

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
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Oily fish

Marbled red meats and full fat dairy will generally contain the most saturated fats. Skinless poultry and lean meats will have the lowest levels of saturated fats. Oily fish are rich in protective unsaturated fats.

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.

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.

A surprising amount of sugar in our diets comes from drinks. 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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

You can have surgery for weight loss if are clinically obese and are struggling significantly to lose weight.

Surgery for weight loss

You can have surgery for weight loss if are clinically obese and are struggling significantly to lose weight. There are several kinds of weight loss procedures, including gastric band and gastric bypass surgery.

A gastric band is an adjustable silicone device placed around the upper section of the stomach, creating a small pouch above the band and thereby restricting the amount of food that can be comfortably eaten.

The alternative weight loss procedures to gastric banding are sleeve gastrectomy and gastric bypass. Sleeve gastrectomy is also a restrictive bariatric procedure where nearly three quarter of the stomach is removed again by keyhole surgery.

The gastric bypass surgery is a combined procedure where there is an element of restriction and malabsorption. A small pouch of the stomach is created and the small bowel is joined to it in such a way that the bile and pancreatic juices mix with the food a bit lower in the bowel, thereby bypassing a proportion of the bowel where digestion and absorption does not occur.

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.

Speak with a specialist

If you want to know more about weight loss surgery and whether it's the right option for you in your weight loss journey, speak with one of our specialists today.

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If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.