The UK government has declared war on obesity. "Covid-19 has given us all a wake-up call [on] the immediate and long-term risks of being overweight, and the prime minister is clear we must use this moment to get healthier, more active and eat better," explained a government spokesperson. "We will be urging the public to use this moment to take stock of how they live their lives, and to take simple steps to lose weight, live healthier lives, and reduce pressure on the NHS."
In 2018, the majority of adults in England were classified as overweight or obese. Is a UK-wide obesity plan the way to change that? Who knows. But what we do know is healthier lives begin with knowledge, which is why we've put together this guide to different types of fat, the causes and how you can go about losing it.
The Different Types of Belly Fat
Not all fat is created equal. Excess timber around the waist hurts your health in a way that subcutaneous fat – the soft layer of chub that sits directly under the skin – doesn’t. Belly fat (a.k.a. visceral fat) is stored in your abdominal cavity, and shares space with important organs like the liver, stomach, kidneys and intestines.
Belly fat is metabolically active, which means it’s basically an organ in itself – but not one you’d want to donate.
It excels at pumping out various inflammatory substances, interfering with hormones that regulate appetite, weight, mood and brain function and sending your cortisol levels — responsible for stress — through the roof. No surprise then, that it’s associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
So far, so tragic. There is, however, some good news. Belly fat may be the most dangerous type of body fat, but since it’s buried deep within your body, it’s also the easiest to get rid of. But before we talk about that, it’s worth identifying the causes of belly fat. After all, it’s far better to not put the weight on in the first place.
What Causes Belly Fat? The Main Culprits
We all know that eating too much and moving too little is the foundation upon which flab is built. But there’s more to the belly fat equation than ‘calories in and calories out’. Certain stressors, for example, will see you scaling your belt notches with very little effort. Here’s what you should look out for.
1. You're Eating Trans Fats
If antioxidants are the good guys of gut health, trans fats are the super-villains. These sneaky fats actively contribute to your growing waist line – not just by adding new fat, but by moving fat from other areas of your body to your belly. During a six-year study at Wake Forest University, monkeys that were fed an 8 per cent trans-fat diet had 33 per cent more belly fat than monkeys that were fed an 8 per cent monounsaturated fat diet.
There are currently no legal requirements for food manufacturers to label trans fats, according to the British Dietetic Association, so you need to check ingredients lists for hydrogenated fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils. The biggest culprits? Your ‘cheat day’ favourites: cakes, biscuits, ice cream, popcorn, pies, fried food, fast food, takeaways — the list goes on.
2. You're Seriously Stressed
When your cortisol levels are through the roof, it triggers the release of insulin, and this is where things go awry. Initially, the ‘fight-or-flight’ response shuts down your digestive system so you can deal with the “threat”, like a very hungry lion or, more realistically, a presentation at work. Once the danger has passed, your body seeks to replenish the hundreds of calories you burned fighting to the death/sweating at the thought of speaking in front of your colleagues and makes you ravenously hungry.
Since your blood sugar levels are now super low (thanks insulin) and your reward centres are blinkered (thanks cortisol) you wind up face-planting the biscuit tin rather than the fruit bowl. To make matters worse, cortisol helps to release myostatin, a protein that breaks down muscle.
3. You're Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Can one too many pints really earn you a beer belly? Well, yes. As you gulp down your drink, your body turns the alcohol into acetate, which your body can’t store. It becomes your primary energy source, and the proteins, carbs and fats swirling around your digestive system are converted to fat by default.
Factor in the excess calories from your drinks (around seven per gram) – with the gut-busting kebab you pick up on the way home (‘drunk hunger’ is a real, proven thing) and suddenly you’re looking at excess fat storage.
Not only does a night on the sauce send your cortisol levels through the roof, it saps your testosterone, which means you’ll find it more difficult to build lean muscle and burn fat as fuel.
4. You've Got Too Much of the Wrong Gut Bacteria
Most of the bacteria that dwell in your gut are pretty useful. They produce hormones, regulate your immune system, digest food, extract nutrients, control your mood, manage your appetite, and much more besides.
Now, two groups of beneficial bacteria are dominant in the human gut, the bacteroidetes and the firmicutes. However, the number of bacteroidetes is decreased in obese people when compared with lean people, according to research.
In another study, scientists took stool samples from 1300 twins and found that the less diverse your gut bacteria, the more likely you are to have belly fat. Grow your gut community to shed serious timber.
How to Lose Belly Fat Quickly and Safely
If you’re serious about banishing belly fat and improving your health, surviving on salad and hitting the treadmill for hours on end is a miserable (and highly inefficient) way to go about it.
Here's how to shift belly fat in five easy steps:
1. Hike up Your Metabolism
Your ultimate goal is to hike up your metabolism, and the intensity of your workout, the fundamentals of your diet, how much muscle you have, how well you manage stress, and your quality of sleep all play a part in this.
“A faster metabolism helps burn fat,” explains Marcus Reddy, consultant laparoscopic, upper GI and bariatric surgeon at Spire St Anthony’s Hospital. While your metabolism is predetermined by your body size, sex and age, he says, “increasing lean body mass, avoiding long periods of hunger, and intense periods of physical activity can aid burning”.
2. Get Your Diet in Check
Prioritise lean protein like beef, turkey, eggs, fish, chicken, and tofu. University of Missouri researchers compared the benefits of consuming a normal-protein breakfast to a high-protein breakfast and found the high-protein breakfast, which contained 35 grams of protein, prevented weight gain, reduced daily food intake and feelings of hunger and stabilised glucose levels among overweight teens who would normally skip breakfast.
Don’t know your steak from your salmon when it comes to deciphering protein, fats, and carbs? You need our ultimate guide to tracking your macros.
Limit foods high in refined carbohydrates and refined sugar (white bread, white pasta, white rice), and replace them with high fibre ‘complex carbs’ – think: whole grains, brown rice, sweet potato, oats, beans and pulses. Fill your boots with as many vegetables as possible – they’re low calorie, high in micronutrients, and the fibre in them will keep you full.
Snack on portion-controlled fruit, seeds and nuts. One study found that snacking on 42g of almonds per day (instead of munching on something high-carb with equal calories) helped to reduce belly fat and improved cholesterol levels. “The high levels of fibre are proven to combat excess calorie consumption later in the day,” says registered dietitian Lucy Jones.
A 2019 review of evidence on the Mediterranean diet concluded that it "is associated with numerous health benefits and has been demonstrated to exert a preventive effect towards numerous pathologies, including obesity". Better yet, the diet boosts the number of healthy bacteria in your gut – a study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition saw levels rise by up to seven per cent, compared with a western diet.
It’s also important to make sure you’re eating regularly. Avoid very low calorie diets or ‘crash diets’, advises Reddy. “Periods of starvation can lower your metabolism and prevent you losing weight.”
Our beginner’s guide to meal prep won’t leave you hungry.
3. Up the Intensity of Your Workout
Focus on increasing physical activity and building muscle to burn belly fat, recommends Reddy. “Mild activity such as walking is poor at burning fat due to its low energy consumption whilst intense cardio training will consume energy and increase metabolic rate after exercise,” he says.
When scientists from Canada’s Laval University compared a 15-week HIIT programme and a 20-week endurance-training programme, they found the former was far more effective at stoking up the body’s metabolism, which resulted in greater fat loss.
Balance your high-intensity workouts with weight lifting sessions and you’re onto a winner. Researchers at Harvard University followed more than 10,500 men over a 12 year period, and found that those who added 20 minutes of weight training to their regular cardio workout gained less age-related belly fat than those who pounded the treadmill.
Focus on compound moves like deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, lunges, chest presses, shoulder presses — exercises that work your entire body rather than isolating muscles. Simply put, you cannot 'spot-reduce' fat, meaning that endless crunches will do little for getting rid of your belly. For best results split your sessions over different days.
Not sure where to start? Our beginner’s guide to lifting weights will have you pumping iron like a pro before you know it.
4. Learn How to Manage Stress
You don’t have to take a three-month sabbatical in Bali or enrol on a ‘breathing class’ in a Scandi Yogi retreat to find inner calm. You don’t even have to meditate (though it’ll almost certainly help). If a few minutes of deep-belly breathing in a quiet spot doesn’t chill you out, try a bodyweight workout or taking a walk around the block. Exercise boosts your circulation, transporting cortisol to your kidneys, which flush it out.
Eating slowly will also help cinch your waist, too. Inhaling croissants while run-walking to work will do little to satiate you – not that you’ll do much digesting anyway, with all that cortisol flooding your system. Instead, by making time to eat and focusing on your food (that also means not scrolling through Instagram), you’ll wind up eating less and you’ll feel fuller for longer.
5. Get Quality Sleep
Multiple studies have shown an association between short sleep and weight gain. When you’re low on Zzz’s, activity in the brain’s frontal lobe (the sensible decision-making part) is impaired. At the same time, the more ‘primal’ parts of your brain that deal with things like desire and motivation are lit up like the Blackpool Illuminations.
Inadequate sleep also wreaks havoc on your metabolism. When the body doesn’t get enough rest, it conserves energy by slowing down basic functions. The combination of untameable cravings, little willpower, and inefficient processing is an open invitation for fat storage. Follow our advice to improve your sleep tonight.