Belly Fat: The Causes & Solutions
(This post was originally posted in July of 2016, and today, I am revisiting the topic and adding new updates to the post)
It may not seem important, but where we carry the majority of our weight on our body is an extremely important indicator of our health. For women especially, carrying a little extra weight in our lower body (butt and hips) is actually better due to the fact that women are meant to carry and birth children.
On the other hand, for both men and women, carrying extra weight in our mid-sections is not as optimal. In fact, having more belly fat has been linked to a greater risk for chronic disease, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
What Causes Belly Fat?
When it comes to accumulating belly fat, it comes down to a few factors, the most important of which is the hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is our fight-or-flight response to stress in our lives. Whether that stress comes from work, family, poor diet, emotional stress, or even being chased by a tiger, cortisol responses to the stimulus created by our body when we sense stress.
Cortisol is a good thing, as it is necessary to be alive; however, when we are in a state of constant stress (like most of our nowadays!), cortisol production and levels can get out of control and become either too high or too low. This is where the development of belly fat occurs.
Other hormones also play a role in the creation of belly fat. High estrogen, low testosterone, and/or low DHEA can also lead to the development of belly fat.
And what causes these hormonal imbalances?
It all comes back to stress. Like I stated above, stress can be in a variety of different forms (physical, mental, emotional, etc), but our body doesn't differentiate. It just sees stress as a threat and responses accordingly. Chronically high stress levels lead to more and more belly fat as our body works to protect us from what it perceives as a life or death stressor. And our body's way of not allowing us to die is to keep us from starving (the most common way of dying our body is used to). It accomplishes this by storing excess fat around our midsection.
Other causes of belly fat include a poor diet, sleep problems, and lack or excess amounts of exercise.
When it comes to our diet, it is crucial to fuel our bodies with the proper macronutrients for energy, and the proper micronutrients for nutrition! Eating lots of refined foods, sodium, sugar, and vegetable oils lead to an inflammation response in the body, which ultimately creates belly fat.Such foods include refined grains (even whole grains!), gluten, wheat, pastries, candy, cakes, canola oil, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, peanut oil, soybean oil, vegetable oils, and all the other packaged, processed foods that line the grocery store shelves.
Sleep, on the other hand, can also lead to belly fat because when we don't allow our body to rejuvenate throughout each night, we create a stressful situation in our body. This leads to inflammation in the body, which, as we now know, leads to belly fat.
Lastly, too little or too much exercise can also lead to belly fat. When we are sedentary, we aren't allowing our body to move and gain strength, which leads to weak, unused muscles which become smaller and smaller, while our fat cells grow larger and larger.
Too much exercise, also known as overtraining, is not the better solution to belly fat either. Too much exercise increases cortisol, and chronically high cortisol leads to belly fat. When we overexercise, our body starts to hold onto the fat we do have because it senses a stressful situation. By holding onto the belly fat, our body is protecting us from what it perceives as danger (which is actually just overtraining).
Overtraining and belly fat usually occur with chronic cardio, when we aim to do cardio everyday, all day. Running and running and running or biking and biking and biking all the time aren't the answer.
What to Do
(And no - the solution IS NOT 100+ crunches a day or running and running and running. That will get you nowhere fast.)
Alright, we've covered the causes of belly fat, which really can be summarized in one word: stress.
So, when it comes to getting rid of our belly fat and achieving an ideal body composition, it comes down to managing stress levels through our mindset, diet, and exercise.
Firstly, we need to change our mindset. What I mean by this is learning to let go of some of the things in life that are causing you stress. Understand that you cannot control the world; life happens, and sometimes, you need to just let go. Constantly worrying and having anxiety over every event in our lives leads to chronic stress, which leads to belly fat. Calm your mind, calm your body!
Also, along with the mindset piece is our perception of ourselves and how we talk to ourselves internally. Negative thoughts about our bodies and abilities is a huge stress on the body, even if it doesn't seem like it. Take time to appreciate your body for all it's worth, because it is amazing and deserves to be treated as such. You wouldn't call your friend some of the things your call yourself, right?! So don't reciprocate that judgement back on yourself.
With our diet, I've already talked about getting rid of the junk (read your labels for sugar and vegetable oils - they are everywhere!). Stick to wholesome foods: animal proteins, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats, the latter being very important.
Healthy fats that help decrease inflammation and decrease belly fat include avocados, avocado oil, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), coconut milk, olives, and extra virgin olive oil. If you only make one change, change your cooking fats. Throw out ALL the vegetable oils in your pantry and replace them with coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. It is a lateral shift that will make a huge difference.
Also with our diet, it is important to make sure we are drinking enough water. Keep a water bottle with you all day every day! And, we also need to be watching the sodium we are getting from packaged, processed foods.
Now, adding sea salt to real, whole foods is perfectly acceptable. Baked potatoes, broccoli, and other veggies taste so much better with a hint of sea salt! But, what doesn't help belly fat is the excess sodium in refined foods that have a long shelf life. Read your labels on everything - you'd be shocked how much sodium is in packaged foods (especially low fat or fat free items and condiments).
Lastly, like I joked about above, crunches do not lead to a flat stomach. Ever. Nor does chronic cardio.
Instead, straight strength training with a focus on building total body strength is the best way to combat extra belly fat. We cannot spot reduce the fat on any part of our body, so it is best to address it from head to toe.
Straight strength training means doing one exercise, resting for 30-60 seconds, and repeat that same exercise 2-4 more times for a total of 3-5 sets. Then, you'll move on to the next exercise and repeat.
This is a very different template than a lot of the interval training plans you'll see floating around. In my experience as a trainer, I've found that there are very few people who should be doing any type of HIIT (high intensity interval training) or cardio with weights as I like to call it. Most people are too stressed the way it is and adding a random circuit of exercises designed to just make you sweat more is NOT the answer to achieving your goals. Instead, focusing on building muscle, and thereby increasing your metabolism, is the best way to go.
When it comes to belly fat, it can be causes by a number of factors, the most common and important being stress. Diet, sleep, and exercise all play a role in the development of belly fat as well.
In order to decrease our belly fat and regain our health, we must work on lowering our stress levels, avoid overtraining, and fill our body with nourishing fats and real food.
Remember, it really comes down to cortisol. Decrease stress = lower cortisol = lower belly fat.