Ah, the F word — fat. Tastes amazing, found in everything, loves to set up permanent residence on your ass and beyond. But, not all body fat is created equal. Take belly fat, for example — it’s more dangerous than that dimpled fat on your thighs, and just as tricky to banish. But with a few tweaks to your lifestyle, you can conquer the muffin top that keeps you from quickly zipping up those skinny jeans.
Belly fat a.k.a. that thickening middle that comes with age — as well as lower estrogen levels, shorter sleep cycles, and a not-so-hot diet — is mainly visceral fat. We’re not talking cottage cheese, subcutaneous “just under the skin” fat; visceral fat is the nasty, hidden kind. When you put on extra pounds, the body runs out of safe places to store fat — so it starts accumulating around major organs, like the heart and liver.
Visceral fat can wreak all sorts of havoc on your health. “Too much of it in the abdominal area increases risk of problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, and, most recently found, colorectal cancer,” says Dr. Jessica Fanzo, a nutritionist at Columbia University. “It’s also thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance — which boosts risk of diabetes — than other fat.” Sigh. Are you at risk? Dr. Fanzo recommends wrapping a measuring tape around your middle. “Women with a waist circumference more than 35 inches are at an increased risk.”
So, you've identified your risk factor, but how do you banish the belly fat? Whole exercise empires have been built around just this quandary, and yet still we struggle with it. Well, that's probably because it's not just one thing that affects belly fat levels — it's a whole menagerie. “Exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management are all pretty important when it comes to losing weight,” says Elizabeth Pongo, NYC-based personal trainer and owner of Pongo Power. “The best exercise regime for losing visceral fat includes a lot of core stabilization, and lower abdominal training.” Sounds easy enough, right? But there’s a catch.
“You can get a ton of vigorous exercise, but it all goes back to what you’re eating,” Pongo says. She recommends clean eating...with balance. “Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t eliminate birthday cake. Why not just shoot yourself now?” she says. Well, thank god, because sometimes we have to shove rich, high-glycemic carbs in our faces. Overall, stick to smaller portions of fresh fruits, vegetables, fiber (to keep you feeling full), and protein (to satiate those hunger pangs). Pongo also suggests a food journal to stay on track. “Some of our decisions are based on compulsion,” she says. “A food journal helps you to become more consciously aware of what you’re consuming.”