Most of us put on weight around the middle as we get older, but having a big belly can be dangerous even for people with an overall healthy weight. In fact, people who have a normal BMI but a pot belly could be at greater risk of premature death than those who are obese, according to a recent study.
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Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, US, found that men who had a normal BMI but a big belly were more than twice as likely to die compared to obese men. And women with a normal weight and a potbelly were 32 percent more likely to die than obese women.
So what makes belly fat so bad? The problem is that visceral fat stored deep inside the abdominal cavity surrounds the internal organs, promoting inflammation. The good news is that visceral fat shrinks fairly quickly when you exercise and watch your diet.
1. Walk off your belly
Walking isn't just a great way to burn calories, it's also a good way to slim down your waist. Studies suggest that if you walk briskly for 45 minutes or more, your body begins to burn your fat reserves – most of which are stored around your tummy. If you need motivation, try walking with a friend or volunteer to walk a dog.
Walking burns anywhere from 135 to 300 calories in 45 minutes, depending on your weight and the speed at which you walk. The more you weigh and the faster you are, the more calories you will burn. As an example, someone weighing 12.5 stones burns 119 calories walking 2 mph for 45 minutes and 196 calories walking 3 mph. Pick-up the pace to 4 mph and you'll burn 298 calories.
Wearing a fitness tracking device is a great way to see how many calories you burn and the number of steps you take. Health experts recommend that we should walk 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) to stay healthy, yet most Britons walk less than half of that. Buy a tracker that also measures you're heart rate – such as the Fitbit Charge - and it will tell you when you're in the fat-burning zone.
2. Watch those refined carbs
You don't necessarily have to overhaul your diet to lose belly weight. Most of us could shed a few pounds by switching refined carbs to wholegrains and cutting out sugary extras.
A study published in the 2010 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who increased their whole-grain consumption did not develop more visceral, subcutaneous belly fat – unlike those who increased their intake of refined carbohydrates.
There's another good reason to limit how much refined carbohydrate, such as white bread and pasta, you eat. When you eat High GI foods, your blood sugar levels spike and your body releases cortisol, which is linked to excess belly fat. If cutting back on carbs makes you hungry, up your intake of vegetables and protein from things like lentils, chicken and eggs.
3. Keep moving to fight fat
Studies show that sitting for prolonged periods of time is just as bad for your health as smoking. Not only does sitting cause your abdominal muscles to become weak, it also leads to weight gain. Make an effort to stand and walk around for a few minutes every hour. To improve your core strength try sitting on Swiss ball while you watch TV. Even when you sit still on a fitness ball, your muscles will be working to maintain your balance.
4. Take up tai chi or yoga
Tai chi and yoga won't burn lots of calories – but they can help reduce your stress levels, which can have a surprising effect on your spare tyre. Studies show that stress causes the body to release hormones such as cortisol, which has been linked to abdominal weight gain. If you can't get to a tai chi class, you can always buy a DVD - like Tai Chi for Beginners - and learn at home. Deep breathing, going for a short brisk walk, and listening to a guided meditation can also help reduce your stress levels.
5. Eat a tablespoon of vinegar every day
Research suggests that eating a tablespoon of vinegar every day could help fight belly fat. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that obese people who consumed a tablespoon of vinegar every day for two months decreased their levels of visceral body fat. Just make sure it's in a low-fat salad dressing and not sprinkled on chips!
6. Get your Zzz
Many studies have found a link between sleep deprivation and weight gain, and research suggests that not getting enough shut-eye can slow down your metabolism – as well as making you crave calorie-dense foods.
Experts suggest that we need around 7.5 hours of quality sleep per night. Getting an extra 30-minutes of shut-eye isn't going to help you lose weight - but if you regularly only get five hours of sleep then getting more zzzs is likely to have a positive effect.
Make sure your bedroom is the right temperature for sleep, avoid heavy meals, alcohol and caffeine before bed, and cut back on day-time naps if necessary.
7. Eat more calcium
Eating too much saturated fat (found in hard cheese and meat) is bad news for your belly. A study published in the journal Diabetes in 2014 found that overconsuming saturated fat increases abdominal visceral fat – more than those who ate the same amount of calories in polyunsaturated fat.
While you might want to cut back or switch to half-fat cheese, make sure you're getting enough calcium. Studies show that when your body doesn't have enough calcium it starts to store more body fat. Experts suggest eating at least 700mg of calcium per day.
8. Get some sun
Not getting enough sunshine could also affect your ability to lose that pot belly. According to Dr Michael Zemel from the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, when you're low in vitamin D, your levels of the hormone calcitriol rise, and high levels of this substance cause the body to hoard fat. Vitamin D is also believed to work with calcium to help reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes the body to store belly fat.
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