As the holidays approach and thoughts of Santa Claus dance in the heads of kids of all ages, three to 103, we think of the guy with the white beard and the big round belly that works better on him than it does on us.
Belly fat is its own special kind of fat, capable of affecting our health for the worse in ways that fat elsewhere on the body doesn't. Some of that belly fat resides just beneath the skin; other layers of fat reside farther inside surrounding our heart, lungs, liver, and other life-essential organs. That's what is known as "visceral fat," which can also be a big problem for thin people, not just anyone we might regard as roly-poly or worse.
Some of that visceral fat, as webmd.com points out, provides protective cushioning for our organs. That's the good news. Too much of it, however, can make us more susceptible to conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia and some cancers. And that fat isn't inert, sitting there harmless. It can produce "lots of nasty substances," said Dr. Kristen Hairston, a Wake Forest University assistant professor of endocrinology and metabolism, quoted at webmd.com.
The amount of visceral fat you have is in part genetically determined, and in part a result of our lifestyle, whatever we choose it to be. Here are some things you can do to help control and, as necessary, lose belly blubber:
- Get regular exercise. Take part in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, most commonly broken down into five workouts of at least 30 minutes' duration. Brisk walking, jogging, swimming and bike riding come to mind. Raking leaves, going to Zumba or playing soccer with the kids can work just as well. If it's not making you sweat and breathe hard, you might want to up your tempo some. Get that heart rate up, while keeping it at a safe level. Discuss with your doctor as needed.
- Eat a healthy diet. Where have you heard this before, right? It's advice that never gets old. Start with getting enough fiber—an increase in fiber, even without any other change in eating habits, can reduce the buildup of visceral fat. Think food items such as apples, green peas, pinto beans, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Finding a good combination that works well when blended can mean making it go down the hatch all the easier.
- Get the right amount of sleep. Notice we said the "right amount" instead of just saying "more"—too much sleep can work against you as much as not enough. The National Institutes of Health, according to health.com, recommend seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
- Deal properly with stress. Everyone has some stress in their lives, some more than others. Accept the fact you need to deal with it and find ways to carve out time for a steady dose of relaxation and fun. Meditation or prayer is a good start. Exercise, too. If you find you can't manage the stress on your own, seek professional counseling. Consider it a good investment for your health and longevity.
- Reduce sugary drinks. Cut back on most popular beverages, such as soft drinks, even many fruit drinks. Drink water or beverages with artificial sweetener instead, and be sure to carefully check the labels on those sweeteners—not all such sweeteners are the same.
A few other notes about belly fat. Doing sit-ups, or crunches, all hours of the day won't help much because targeted workouts haven't been particularly effective in melting away belly fat. Combining cardiovascular activity with weight training that builds muscle mass throughout the body has been shown to be helpful. Losing fat needs to be treated as a body-wide endeavor, during which belly fat will melt away along with other deposits of fat, although belly fat usually is the first to go.
Age is also a factor, as you might have guessed. A metabolism that is gearing down makes it that much harder for middle-aged and older folks to jettison that stubborn fat. Don't lose heart, just fat. Like we said, five workouts a week of at least 30 minutes a pop can do wonders.
One other thing—belly fat isn't just a guy thing. Gals must deal with it, too. This can be especially true for women who have gone through menopause, whereby an increase in belly fat can occur even without an accompanying gain in weight. Blame that on decreasing levels of estrogen, mayoclinic.org says, as such a drop apparently affects how fat is distributed in the body.
Just remember: belly fat is nothing to ho-ho-ho and be jolly about. It's time to lose it, not use it.