Is it Possible to Target Belly Fat When Losing Weight?

This is yet another great article from our friends over at The Medicine JournalJessica asks: Is it true there are ways to target losing the fat around your stomach? If so, how?

belly-fatA quick internet search will yield countless claims of ways to remove the unwanted fat from around your mid-section.  From over-hyped diet pills promising to reduce levels of cortisol to cutting-edge workouts.  The truth is that there is no scientifically proven diet pill or exercise that will specifically target your stomachs fat vs the fat providing a nice bone blanket for other parts of your body.

All that being said, you can get rid of that belly fat- to better understand how, let’s talk about fat, in the medical world known as adipose tissue, the different types, and methods for losing some of it.

Fat comes in two types, white and brown.  Brown fat, in humans, is a very good type of fat to have.  Primarily found in newborns, its main function is to produce heat.  It does this because they have a higher number of a metabolism generating organelle known as mitochondria.

Once thought non-existent in adults, in January of 2014, a research team at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia, found brown fat does exist in adults and those with higher levels tend to be slimmer than those without.  In fact, they estimate, while 50 grams of fat will store about 300 kilocalories of energy, 50 grams of brown fat will burn about 300 kilocalories per day.  Now, don’t think you can pack 300,000 calories of food in your grocery cart and 50 grams of brown fat will burn it off.  Remember, food labels are already listed in kilocalories.

Subcutaneous fat lies just below the skin and an excess of it will yield a plump appearance.  Men tend to store excesses in their abdomen, chest, and shoulders.  Sometimes referred to as android fat distribution, this can lead to an apple-shaped appearance.  Women tend to store excesses in their hips and thighs, known as Gynoid fat distribution.  A pear-shaped appearance is the result.

When it comes to societal perception of looks, a surplus of subcutaneous fat is generally viewed as unattractive and most want to get rid of it.   While excesses of this type in your stomach aren’t exactly healthy, having too much doesn’t pose any additional risk than too much in other areas of your body.

Visceral fat is another animal altogether. This type surrounds and cushions our internal organs from all the jarring associated with everyday life.  Too much of this in your abdomen has long been known to come with an increased risk of having high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, certain cancers, and many other health problems.

The exact mechanisms of why visceral fat is so dangerous is still hotly debated.  The leading explanation revolves around what is known as lipotoxicity.

Enlarged visceral fat cells will release fatty acids directly into your liver through the portal vein.  They will then begin to accumulate in the pancreas, heart, and other abdominal organs.  These locations are not engineered to store fatty acids, and the result is dysfunction of those organs.  This puts you at much higher risk of the aforementioned heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver problems and countless other conditions.

Visceral fat cells are also different from subcutaneous in a couple of ways.  They tend to have more receptor sites for the steroid hormones cortisol and androgen, and an increased blood-flow compared to subcutaneous.  This is important because, at the cellular level, cortisol and insulin promote fat accumulation.  It does this by expressing an enzyme known as lipoprotein lipase.

Conversely, testosterone, growth hormone, and estrogens will have the opposite effects.  This matters because a common theme among people with excess abdominal fat is high cortisol and insulin levels, combined with low levels of testosterone, growth hormones and estrogens.

Now that you know a little about fat, let’s talk about how to get rid of it.

As mentioned before, there are no magic pills.  Several supplements and diet pills claim to decrease cortisol, thereby reducing the ability of your body to make visceral fat.   Unfortunately for their investors, no scientifically vetted study has ever backed up the claims, and because the FDA does not regulate them, their exact ingredients have been called in to question.  Most will also say their pills work in conjunction with diet and exercise.  It’s this “conjunction” that really matters, not the pills.

A balanced, healthy diet, focusing on appropriate calorie intake, will always be the best way to control your weight, and thereby fat accumulation.  Should you already be obese, exercise to burn more calories than you take in will begin to reduce the amount of fat you have because your body needs to break it down and use it for energy.

Avoid foods that are high on the glycemic index.  This index ranks foods that cause rapid spikes in your blood sugar on a scale of 0-100.  When you have high spikes in blood sugar, more insulin is produced.  When sugar levels then begin to decrease, it can trigger the release of cortisol.  As mentioned before, insulin and cortisol promote fat accumulation.

A class of antioxidants known as catechins have also shown to help burn fat cells.  Foods with catechins in them include green teas, red wine, chocolate, berries and apples, to name a few.

The question of what specific type of exercise will give you a better chance of reducing the jelly in your belly was answered, among other studies, in April, 2014 in the Journal of Sports Sciences.  Researchers found that aerobic training combined with resistance training was much more effective at improving the levels of visceral and subcutaneous fat, compared to those who did just aerobic training alone.

For women particularly who often like to stick to just cardio workouts or extremely light weights for fear of becoming “bulky,” this should come as a wake-up call.  Don’t worry, you’re biologically not capable of developing large man-muscles, unless you start injecting yourself with certain chemicals that is.  By lifting weights (the heavier the better, so long as you can maintain proper form), you’re simply going to be stronger, more toned, and in much better shape in general.  Basically, you’ll be better able to achieve that body you want by mixing in resistance training with your aerobic workouts.

Beyond the toning effect, this makes sense because muscle cells tend to burn more calories than fat cells.  Increasing muscle mass, in conjunction with burning more calories than you take in, will cause you to burn more calories per day, and yield better results.

Exercise also helps by turning unhealthy white fat into healthy brown fat.  In 2012, researchers from Harvard showed a muscle hormone, known as irisin, was triggered by exercise and identified it as one of the main mechanisms for turning white fat into brown fat.

Other ways to help improve your body’s ability to get rid of belly fat are getting good sleep and managing your stress.  Sleep patterns can affect the circadian release of cortisol.  Abnormal patterns will result in abnormal cortisol release.  Stress will also increase the amount of cortisol your adrenal glands secrete.

In the end, there’s no real “silver bullet” method for targeting belly fat by itself, other than surgical intervention like liposuction. But it can still be gotten rid of, along with fat elsewhere in your body, by simply exercising, eating in a healthy fashion, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding stress.

If you’re looking for more complete and specific advice on losing fat and building muscle as rapidly as possible while doing it in a healthy and sustainable way, I’d strongly recommend you take a look at Michael Matthews’ books, particular Thinner, Leaner, Stronger (for women) and Bigger, Leaner, Stronger (for men).  His books are simple, no-nonsense, no-gimmick guides on getting in shape and eating healthy in a sustainable way, based on well-vetted science. They also include a lot of “nutrition-myth” debunking, which is very helpful, particularly if you’ve been a victim of the various fad-diets that pop up all the time; you’re going to be shocked at just how simple and sustainable it all really is once you learn some very basic nutrition and workout principles.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

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