I say this to myself and my clients fairly often. For me, at 55, it would be so easy to rationalize my bit of belly flab. I could just chalk it up to childbirth. I could (and did) blame it on the natural metabolic slow down that comes with age. I could keep telling myself there’s not much I can do. It’s not that bad anyway. But, the problem is, that’s a load of crap. And I knew it.
So I decided to take a really hard look at my lifestyle and health habits. What I found is that exercise is not the issue for me. I have belly fat although I lift and do Crossfit 5 times a week. My sleep is fine. I do the proper core exercises and can hold a pretty mean plank if I do say so myself. I am a trainer so I feel confident I know what to do in the gym. All that was left to consider was my diet. But I eat so healthy, mainly meat and veggies. Oh, and some bread…and sometimes sweets. Could it be that?
The answer is..... yes it can. I did an experiment and dropped bread and white flour products. I also kept my sugar intake (I am including wine here) to a minimum. My working out stayed the same and I slept well. I did not make a big change in the amount of calories I consumed. It was all about quality of food. I probably ate more veggies and a bit more meat to make up for the food (and drink) I cut out.
I was truly amazed that these few key changes gave such quick results. My stomach got smaller. I lost several pounds. My pants became loose. I had a more consistent energy level. I didn’t drag in the middle of the day the way I did before. This was all in a matter of 2 to 3 weeks. I was pretty surprised.
So why does this matter? Why should you care? Because it means age and parent status and whatever other “reason” you want to give for problems losing the belly fat are probably not the main issue. You CAN make changes and lose (or significantly reduce) that belly! You just need to do the right things consistently. And there is no better time than right now.
Carrying excess fat around your mid section is not just a beauty or status issue. It is a serious HEALTH PROBLEM. Studies show that belly fat very often signals insulin resistance. That is, the cells in the body are no longer responding to insulin in the way they should. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes. Diabetes can then lead to a host of other health problems (heart disease for one) if undiagnosed and uncontrolled.
Fortunately, there is great deal of solid research out there about belly fat, insulin resistance, and what lifestyle changes can make a positive impact. Nutrition (my issue) is one area. But I want to go over several others as well. You may have heard all this before. It all bears repeating until it sinks in and creates those behavior changes that lead to a trimmer belly and better health.
1. NUTRITION: The right nutrition to lose belly fat is similar to that for losing weight in general. Eat whole foods (vegetables, fruit, lean meats, eggs, seafood) as much as possible and avoid white flour products (breads, pastas, baked goods), processed foods, and sugar. These foods spike blood glucose causing the release of more insulin which is the fat storage hormone. When choosing fruits and vegetables focus on those that are low starch (low on the gylcemic index). If you want to eat bread and pasta (this should be occasional) then choose whole grains as they take longer to process, have more nutrition, and include fiber. Also, when eating bread or other starches time them for consumption after your workout and pair them with non-starchy foods to lessen the likelihood of fat storage.
2. EXERCISE: Just like it is important to eat the right foods to lose that belly, it is critical to do the right kind of exercise. Long sessions of cardio are not the right kind of exercise! Low level cardio can even slow your metabolism and make fat loss more difficult if done to excess.
Weight training and interval training are the superior choices to lose belly fat because they boost metabolism. Losing belly fat (and fat in other areas as well) is about creating an optimal metabolic response in your body. Just focusing on burning calories is not effective. You need to lift heavy things. Lifting weights stimulates your body to use up glycogen in your muscles so the food you eat is not stored as fat. Muscle tissue itself is more metabolically active than fat so the more muscles you have the more energy you use even at rest! Muscle also just happens to look really good.
Similarly, interval training (short intense bursts of exercise followed by rest or low intensity exercise) creates a strong metabolic response and stokes fat-burning processes in the body. Research has shown that interval training leads to more loss of abdominal fat than continuous cardio sessions if done with adequate intensity. In addition, interval training may have appetite-suppressing affects as well which can prevent overeating.
3. CORE TRAINING: Training the abdominal muscles will not spot reduce belly fat. In fact, endless sit-ups are probably one of the least effective ways to reduce your midsection. However, doing proper exercises to strengthen the entire core ( abs, obliques, lower back) will help create aflatter stomach once that fat layer has been burned away. A stronger core also makes it possible to train hard and do vigorous activity with more effectiveness and less risk of injury.
A well–rounded core routine will include exercises for the rectus abdominus, obliques, and lower back. For beginners, I strongly recommend the McGill curl-up (www.absexperiment.com/mcgill-curl-up), plank, side-plank, and supermans. These are 4 basic but powerful exercises that address the major areas that make up your core. Incorporating these exercises into your routine 2 to 3 times a week will help strengthen your abs and spine as well as make you more fit to tackle new physical challenges with your increasingly lean body!
4. GET SOME SHUT EYE: Sleep matters a great deal in the belly fat (and weight loss) fight. Sleep is the time when our body heals from training and releases a variety of hormones which play both a direct and indirect role in fat loss. Research shows that not getting adequate sleep causes a rise in a hormone (ghrelin) which signals hunger. The net effect is you are more likely to crave carbohydrates and eat to excess if you are sleep deprived. Studies also show that people who go to bed closer to midnight have higher cortisol (fat storage hormone) levels in the morning than those who get to bed around ten. So getting to bed later (and probably getting less sleep overall) can prevent fat loss and even contribute to weight gain.
How much sleep is ideal varies from person to person. A good guideline is 7 to 9 hours. If you are having problems sleeping it is more than worth it to seek help. Consult a doctor or obtain help from a sleep clinic. Do some research and try to figure out what ma be preventing you from resting adequately. A good resource is a book by nutritionist Shawn Stevenson entitled “Sleep Smarter.” The important thing is to take sleep problems seriously and do something about them. You will be more successful in losing belly fat and may find other benefits as well.
5. GET A COACH: Losing belly fat (and weight in general) is a challenge. Even though I have laid out some key steps here I know it can be hard for people to follow them for a variety of reasons. Hiring a coach or personal trainer can definitely help. A good trainer willprovide you with the structure, motivation, and support needed to follow through. They can also work with you to identify the specific roadblocks to your success.
The bottom line here is that belly fat is not something that is just gonna go away. It’s also not just a matter of looking good in jeans and a bikini. Belly fat is a signal about your health. You need and can do something about it. The resources are out here. Help is available. Do it now. You will be so glad you did.