Obesity is a major risk factor for disease, but where we store fat is an even more important predictor of overall and long-term health.
Fat storage points are partly genetic, partly hormonal. The main areas are the chest, hips, upper back, waist (oh those stubborn love handles…) or the belly.
Belly fat, or visceral adiposity – excessive fat tissue deep in and around the abdomen – surrounds and congests your vital organs. It is high-risk fat
, associated with an increased risk of heart attack, increased LDL cholesterol (the unhealthy type), stroke, insulin resistance (the precursor to diabetes), and other metabolic disturbances. Abdominal fat is now recognized to be an even greater risk factor for cardiovascular disease and Type II Diabetes Mellitus than overall body fat.
Visceral fat is very different from other fat:
Visceral fat is stored deep in the abdominal cavity, surrounding internal organs. Other types of fat are stored below the skin (subcutaneous fat)
Visceral fat responds to and produces hormones, including leptin (a neurotransmitter produced by fat cells that decreases appetite) and grehlin (the hormone that makes the stomach growl and increases appetite);
Visceral fat grows in response to insulin and cortisol. Abdominal fat cells have more cortisol receptors than other areas, causing them to respond more strongly to high levels of cortisol.
Cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is released in higher quantities when the body reacts to stress. Cortisol is an essential hormone and is not “bad” for you unless it’s allowed to remain high for long periods. When stress is persistent, cortisol signals fat to be deposited in the abdominal area. High cortisol levels also affect blood sugar levels, affect sleep and memory, reduce bone density, and suppress immunity.
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a hormone that can increase blood sugar levels. During periods of stress, cortisol increases the flow of glucose (sugar) out of tissues and into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. This, in turn, raises insulin levels. When circulating insulin is repeatedly high, many cells stop responding to it leading to insulin resistance and inflammation in the arteries (an excess of abdominal fat is typically accompanied by elevated levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation and a major risk factor for heart disease).
Signs of elevated cortisol include cravings for coffee, sugar, chocolate, pasta or other carbohydrates, cravings for alcohol, mindless eating or mindless snacking after dinner.
Measuring waist circumference is an easy way to identify visceral fat; in fact, it is currently the most powerful predictor of obesity-associated cardiovascular disease risk than any other measure of obesity, including the body mass index (BMI). The body mass index can indicate your overall body fat, but not specifically where fat is stored.
Body Composition: Are you an Apple or a Pear?
Using a tape measure, measure your waistline at the smallest point (or about 1 inch above your belly button). Now measure the circumference of your hips at the widest part of your buttocks.
Calculate your waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) by dividing the waist measurement by your hip measurement.
For example: waist 30” ÷ hips 38” = 0.79 waist/hip ratio
Optimal: Male <1.0. Female 0.8.
A waist measurement above 35 inches for women or above 40 inches for men also indicates an increased risk.
To reduce belly fat:
- Manage your stress – Any type of stress will raise cortisol levels. Identify sources of stress in your life and deal with them before they can impact your health. Stress management has countless forms: exercise, meditation, yoga, reiki, massage, warm baths, a weekend away...
- Reduce your sugar intake, especially at night – Corisol raises insulin, but insulin also raises cortisol. High-glycemic foods (like sodas, sweets, and refined starches) elevate blood sugar and insulin. Instead, eat foods with a low glycemic index and include some protein and fiber at each meal and snack.
- Support the adrenals – Adaptogenic herbs, including siberian ginseng, licorice root extract, and schizandra help to regulate the levels of cortisol the adrenal glands produce. Since stress is first perceived by the nervous system, support the brain with B complex and foods rich in B vitamins (dark leafy green vegetables and whole grains).
- Avoid caffeine – Caffeine raises cortisol levels. It’s found in coffee, tea, green tea, chocolate, chocolate milk, and many energy drinks. In many cases, cutting back on caffeine alone will reduce belly size.
- Exercise – Exercise blocks the effects of cortisol by using the glucose circulating in the bloodstream and releasing endorphins. If you’re too tired to exercise, keep moving by introducing less vigorous activities: tai chi, stretching, walking and yoga.
- Catch up on sleep – Even a couple of hours of lost sleep will raise cortisol levels. If you have trouble sleeping through the night, take a nap whenever you can.
- Omega 3 – 1,000 to 4,000 mg of omega-3 fish oil daily mitigates insulin resistance, inflammation, symptoms of physiological stress and can reduce cortisol levels.
- Cortisol can be measured by a saliva test. Levels are highest in the early morning (6 a.m. to 8 a.m.) and lowest around midnight. Taking four samples – at 8 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. and before bedtime provides the most accurate measure of adrenal function.