The Cause of Belly Fat – Why exercise alone may not be enough!

25 Jan 2020

By Sarah Nankervis, Naturopath & Nutritionist

Generally being overweight is an important factor in determining metabolic diseases and recent research shows that accumulation of belly fat specifically is strongly associated with developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. So this should be even more motivation to hit the gym and start burning calories right?

Yes is the answer but some of you may be able to relate to the next bad news…that no matter how many hours you pump iron or pound the treadmill we still have a belly bulge? This is particularly true for men with “beer guts” and women heading towards menopause.

So why is exercise alone not enough?

There are two types of fat: sub-cutaneous (under the skin) and visceral (found in the abdomen and surrounding our vital organs). Current research suggests that belly fat cells are biologically active and is thought of as an endocrine gland or organ, producing hormones and other substances that can profoundly affect our health. Excess belly fat pumps out immune chemicals called cytokines such as TNF – alpha and interleukin – 6 that increase the risk of heart disease and promoting insulin resistance (when your body’s cells don’t respond to normal levels of insulin in response to blood sugar levels) and low-level chronic inflammation.

When our body produces these cytokines, hormones and inflammation our body feels a little stressed and starts to produce cortisol. Cortisol is one of our stress hormones and is produced by our adrenal glands. Cortisol influences where fat is deposited on the body. A study from the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine linked the release of cortisol during times of acute and chronic stress in non-overweight women to excess cortisol levels and abdominal weight gain. Interestingly, the cause-and-effect process flows both ways: it has been proven that women and men who store their weight in the abdominal area also have higher cortisol levels – and higher stress levels – than people whose weight is stored on the hips. Cortisol also prevents the breakdown of visceral fat so we are not only increasing the storage of fat in our belly’s we are preventing its breakdown! Known causes that have been identified to increase cortisol levels and belly fat include high stress lifestyles, anxiety, alcohol consumption, smoking, diets high in processed foods and lack of sleep.

Another major influence on abdominal fat is our hormones; women are more likely to store fats in their lower body such as hips and thighs which is sub-cutaneous, while men are more prone to develop the “beer gut” and store fat in their abdomen area which is visceral fat. As we age though and women head towards menopause they are also more likely to store their fat more centrally and it becomes harder to move!

Scientists have found that men with a “beer belly”, who find it difficult to lose weight, often suffer from low testosterone levels. This is because of aromatase, an enzyme produced by the fat cells inside our body. Aromatase converts testosterone into oestrogen. The increased quantity of aromatase and oestrogen in the body leads to a decrease in testosterone.

So what else can be done when exercise alone isn’t working? Following a whole food “clean” diet by avoiding processed foods can have a huge impact on losing that extra belly fat. Making changes in your lifestyle to lower your stress levels can also have a significant impact.

Including the following in your diet on a regular basis can help lose that “belly fat”.

  • Decrease the amount of inflammation in your body by avoiding processed foods, sugar, alcohol and saturated fats. Including lots of fresh vegetables in your diet decreases the amount of inflammatory chemicals your fat cells produce and help to balance your hormone levels. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and watercress contain sulforaphane which inhibits the stress-mediated increase in the interleukin-6 (inflammatory chemical) levels in the cells.
  • The phenols in berries (strawberries, blueberries, Acai, blackberries) also fight against inflammation. Research also shows that consuming berries such as blueberries can decrease your risk of developing chronic disease or cancer.
  • Drink Green Tea –  Several researchers have studied green tea and its potential as a weight management beverage, focusing on epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a compound in green tea that has been found to increase energy metabolism and fatty acid oxidation. Research reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that green tea can accelerate our bodies’ ability to burn cellular energy by up to 40 percent. Have 2 – 3 cups of loose leaf green tea a day.
  • Include essential fatty acids in your diet daily. EFA’s are potent anti-inflammatories, help to improve metabolic rate and encourage the breakdown of visceral fats. Some of the most essential fatty acid rich foods are:
    • Avocados
    • Cold water fish
    • Olive oil
    • Coconut
    • Raw nuts
  • Fat burning spices – Chilli speeds up metabolism and heat production due to the heat-producing molecule capsaicin. Eating chillies gives our cells a fat-burning boost – up to 25 percent in fact! Maastricht University conducted trials that showed eating chilli suppresses hunger and prolongs the feeling of fullness, reducing appetite. Turmeric is a rich source of anti-oxidants such as curcumin, which is a potent anti-inflammatory. Recent studies have shown significant improvement in bowel cancer when give turmeric. Curcumin has also shown to have similar effects as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for pain management such as arthritis and injury.

Do you need more guidance on your wellness journey?