How to Beat Belly Fat
Spare Tire, Love Handles, Muffin Top
The nicknames for the extra padding around your middle may be cute, but the reality of belly fat is anything but. Although fat can be found in almost any part of your body, the kind that attaches itself to your midsection tends to be the hardest to shed and the most resistant to spot exercises such as crunches -- no matter how careful you are not to overindulge during the holiday season or how firmly you stick to your New Year's resolution to actually do those crunches every day.
And, unfortunately, as women age, the belly increasingly becomes fat's destination of choice. "When a woman reaches her 40s, excess fat is likely to accumulate around the abdomen," says Steven R. Smith, MD, an obesity expert at Florida Hospital and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Center in Orlando. "This belly fat is often just a redistribution of fat to the abdomen rather than a gain in total fat." So even a thin woman may be chagrined to discover that, as her estrogen levels decline during perimenopause, she is suddenly sporting a "meno-pot."
"By losing estrogen, you lose some of the normal contour of your body," explains Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and the founder of RealAge.com. "Instead of weight settling on your hips, it goes to your belly."
Essentially, belly fat takes two major forms: subcutaneous fat (the visible kind just below the skin -- that roll of blubber you can grab hold of) and visceral fat (which is embedded deep within your abdomen and wraps around the organs clustered there). Though the first kind of fat may be more damaging to your looks, the latter kind poses the far greater health risk. And, weirdly, this fat is not always evident. Even if you're not overweight, you still could be packing a lot of visceral fat.
Hidden or not, visceral fat does a real number on your health because of where it sits in the body. With fat, as with real estate, it's all about location, and each fat "depot" has a highly specialized function. "We used to think all fat was created equal, that it was just a storage bin for excess calories," says Elizabeth Ricanati, MD, a consultant to the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. "But that's not true."
Fat, like muscle, is now known to be metabolically active; it produces dozens of chemicals, including hormones that signal to the brain that someone is hungry or satisfied. "Indeed, we now think of fat tissue depots as endocrine organs," says diabetes researcher Philipp Scherer, PhD, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
In other words, fat releases hormones that vary depending on where the fat is located. You may despise the fat that clings to your thighs, but research suggests that the hormones produced there provide a health benefit. "We don't know all the details," says Dr. Smith, "but it is clear that the fat in the hips, and particularly in the thighs, protects against some of the health consequences of obesity, such as diabetes, by producing substances that increase insulin sensitivity." Visceral fat, on the other hand, is known to produce inflammatory agents that can, over time, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colorectal cancers.