How To Lose Stubborn Belly Fat…For Good
We live in a country where seven out of ten adults are overweight.
The predominant cultural message is that weight is a personal problem and you just need more willpower. And when you don’t, it’s your fault.
The weight loss industry makes billions of dollars every year with different programs and products designed around the concept of eating less and exercising more.
But it’s not working. Waistlines as a nation continue to expand.
Perhaps a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind weight gain will help.
Spoiler alert: it has so much to do with hormones.
If you have stubborn belly fat and are ready for a new approach to achieve your health goals, this article is for you.
We will cover:
- The difference between belly fat vs. a more even fat distribution and what this means for your health
- How to use the waist-to-hip ratio as one assessment tool for belly fat and health risk
- Two main hormones that signal the body to store fat in the belly
- The secret to addressing belly fat and weight loss, once and for all
- Helpful steps and considerations on your weight loss journey
General Versus Abdominal Obesity
The location of excess body fat matters.
Subcutaneous fat refers to the fat layer found just under the skin. If you pinch the back of your arm or your thigh, this is subcutaneous fat, and we all have some.
When we gain weight and it’s more evenly distributed throughout the body and largely deposited in this subcutaneous region, it is known as general obesity.
Visceral fat refers to the fat that surrounds the internal organs. When this type of fat increases, it is known as central obesity or abdominal obesity and carries with it additional health risks.
Abdominal obesity impacts one out of every 3 American adults and is related to metabolic dysfunction, insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance. Visceral fat increases the risk of both diabetes and heart disease.
In studies comparing general to abdominal obesity, abdominal obesity without general obesity is associated with an elevated risk of major cardiovascular outcomes (like heart attacks and strokes), where general obesity without abdominal obesity does not.
Assess Your Weight Distribution: The Waist-To-Hip Ratio
How do you know how your weight is distributed? A couple simple measurements and a little math can help.
The waist-to-hip ratio helps to predict disease risk, along with weight, lab work and other medical assessments. This ratio helps us to see how much fat is being stored in your abdomen versus hips and thighs.
Here’s how to do it:
Use a measuring tape, place it just above your belly button where your waist is the smallest and record this measurement. Then, take a measurement around the widest part of your hips.
Then, simply divide your waist measurement by hip measurement.
|Waist-To-Hip Ratio = Waist measurement / Hip measurement|
Based on the results, use this chart to assess your risk:
|Health Risk||Men||Women||Body Shape|
|Low||0.95 or lower||0.80 or lower||Pear|
|High||1.0 or higher||0.86 or higher||Apple|
In addition, a waist circumference above 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, correlates with an increased risk of chronic disease.
Why We Gain Weight And Belly Fat
In short, we gain weight because of hormonal signals.
Diet and lifestyle factors send information to the body, which influences hormones that affect fat storage and metabolism.
Therefore, the idea that our weight is determined by the calories we consume minus the calories we burn doesn’t hold up.
To reduce it to that is oversimplifying something that we need to approach with a deeper understanding of the science involved.
You aren’t a combustion engine: you are an exquisite chemistry laboratory.
Let’s examine two hormones that play a role in visceral fat storage: insulin and cortisol.
Insulin is the hormone that drives the sugar in your bloodstream into your cells.
Insulin is also a main storage hormone. When there is excess sugar or oxidized fatty acids, most commonly from the diet, it is turned into fat and stored in fat cells.
When blood sugar levels are high over time, again largely for dietary reasons including the consumption of excess sugar and refined carbohydrates as well as “bad” fats, insulin levels become high as well.
This is the beginning of insulin resistance, where it becomes harder for the cells to hear the message of insulin.
With insulin resistance, it becomes a bit of a chicken or the egg mater. Which came first, the obesity or the insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance drives fat storage, but visceral adipose tissue (fat tissue) becomes dysfunctional, pro-inflammatory and insulin resistant.
Either way, it is nearly impossible to lose weight and sustain that weight loss without addressing underlying insulin resistance.
Cortisol is a main stress hormone made by the adrenal glands that also influences fat distribution.
Interestingly, stress raises cortisol and cortisol can increase blood sugar, which requires more insulin and plays into insulin resistance that we just discussed.
Cortisol has a natural daily rhythm (which can easily be assessed via the DUTCH test), where cortisol rises in the morning and then is at its lowest levels at night. Cortisol works opposite of melatonin and is a key player in the circadian rhythm.
One study shows that high salivary cortisol at night is associated with abdominal obesity. Another study shows that the disruption of this cortisol rhythm is associated with childhood obesity.
Further when the HPA-axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) is disrupted and cortisol levels are dysregulated, sleep is affected. You’ve likely experienced stress disrupting your own sleep patterns, and this may be one reason why.
We know that poor sleep creates a stressed state (via cortisol increase), increases hunger (via the hormone ghrelin) and causes us to eat more the next day. Because of fatigue, we often gravitate toward the more processed convenience items instead of home cooked meals.
In one study of healthy adults in a laboratory setting, those whose sleep was restricted to 4 hours per night, ate up to 670 more calories the next day compared to those allowed to sleep up to 10 hours.
The Key Insights To Weight Loss
We need a broader understanding of weight, beyond the calories in – calories out hypothesis to tackle weight loss on both individual and population-wide scales.
We need to understand that:
- Weight is largely determined by hormonal inputs.
- Eat less and exercise more is terrible advice because it puts more pressure on vulnerable hormone systems.
- Food companies have hijacked our tastebuds (and hormones!) and know just how to keep us coming back for more. Knowing this can help you avoid getting hijacked.
- Exposure to toxins, one of our favorite topics here, makes the body hold onto weight. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, do just what their name implies, disrupt hormones.
- The blame and shame felt around weight keeps the body in a stressed state.
- Meditation decreases the stress response, lowering cortisol.
Here’s the key to feeling great, losing weight and long-term health: balance your hormones, address the root causes and weight loss will be the side effect.
This isn’t a quick fix or necessarily easy approach because it takes time, dedication to building new habits, but it’s effective.
Steps To Consider On Your Weight Loss Journey
We all have different hormonal landscapes, lifestyles and pain points when it comes to weight, so a personalized approach is needed.
Applying a Functional Medicine approach to address root causes, often allows body composition to shift without having to force it with an unsustainable fad or crash diet.
Here are some steps that may be helpful on your journey:
1. Uncover your root causes. Use Functional Medicine tests for testing and exploration to discover hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, toxic burdens and other factors that may be influencing your weight.
2. Clean up your diet. The idea of moderation and that “every food fits” doesn’t work when it comes to a nutrient-poor, high carb processed food diet. These foods keep feeding information to your body to store weight.
A great place to start with the Every Life Well Paleo Protocol, a nutrient-dense healing diet that will keep you feeling full and satisfied while providing your body the nutrition that it needs. It’s sends different information to your body, one of balance and harmony.
3. Eat an avocado per day. A recent 12-week study compared fat disruption among participants who ate similar meals each day, except that one group received a daily avocado. The participants who ate a daily avocado saw a reduction in visceral fat and a redistribution of fat away from the belly.
Avocados are very nutrient-rich, contain fiber, monounsaturated fats, folate and minerals like potassium. Also, if you’re eating the avocado you’re likely crowding out other unhealthy fats such as trans fats or vegetables oils.
4. Meditate. The body can’t let go of weight when it thinks it’s being chased by a tiger. A restful, relaxed and non-stressed state is more ideal. This might mean addressing cortisol and HPA-axis imbalances. Read more about how to do that here: HPA-Axis Dysfunction and Hidden Stress.
5. Understand your why behind food choices. When you feel a craving, pause, and assess if you are truly physically hungry or if you may be reaching for food for emotional reasons. Our relationships with food can be complex and some exploration here is often a powerful way to shift unwanted behaviors around food.
6. Change your mindset. Most of us are tuned into the messages around us about eating less and exercising more. These messages promote deprivation and punishment instead of celebration. Instead, use food to nourish your body and exercise to bring you positive emotions.
7. Get your ZZZZs. Sleep your pounds away by prioritizing sleep and a balanced circadian rhythm. If sleep is challenging get more tips in this blog: Tips for Better Sleep.
It’s never too late to become more in tune with your body and its needs. We so often fight against our body and go to war with our bellies.
Instead, by understanding why the body stores fat, we can address our health goals from a place of self-compassion and help to create the balanced conditions that allow the body to release weight naturally, while preserving and restoring health and vitality.
Do you feel “stuck” in your weight loss even though you feel like you’re doing everything right?
Have you increased your exercise or activity level and reduced calories, but you’re still struggling to lose weight? Have you tried different “fad” or restrictive diets only to lose weight and gain it all back?
Over the years I’ve helped many patients break through stubborn weight loss and weight plateaus.
Read more here.