Bad Belly Fat: What it is, Why it’s Harmful, and How to Lose It

If you receive a survey asking what your least-favorite body part is, what would you reply? If you’d say, “my belly,” you probably mean the jiggly belly fat you just can’t seem to lose, no matter what you do. You’re not the only one who feels that way.An image of a young woman doing a yoga stretching pose.

When Prevention magazine asked its readers the same question, 67% said their tummies were their least favorite body part. Like you, they’ve probably tried dieting it off. Exercising it off. Steam-rooming it off. But it just keeps hanging around, getting in the way, giving them something to cover up.

But the physical appearance of belly fat is not the only reason to try to get rid of it. Belly fat can be dangerous to your health.

Types of belly fat

There are two main types of body fat, subcutaneous and visceral. Though having an excess of either type is healthy, visceral fat is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat.

Subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat lies directly beneath the skin, between your skin and muscles. Typically, subcutaneous fat accumulates around your hips, buttocks, thighs, and abdomen. It is the fat you can grab or pinch anywhere on your body, and research indicates it is not that dangerous to your health.

Though you might think subcutaneous fat causes at least some of the obesity-related health problems — such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease — some studies have shown otherwise. One 2004 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine detailed how nearly 25 pounds of subcutaneous fat was removed through liposuction from obese women. Yet, after three months, there had been no improvement in their cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar levels.

That’s because they still had a significant amount of visceral belly fat, the most dangerous type of belly fat to have.

Visceral fat

Visceral body fat, sometimes known as ‘hidden’ fat, is fat accumulated deep within the abdominal cavity and wrapped around vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. It comprises roughly one-tenth of the body’s total fat reserves. While subcutaneous fat can be located everywhere on the body, visceral belly fat is found only in the tummy area.

The location of visceral fat deep within the abdomen is harmful because fat is metabolically alive, continually releasing chemicals and compounds into the blood. Researchers believe the portal vein, located nearby, carries these compounds into the liver, triggering the production of blood fat. The liver then sends it to all the other vital organs, tainting their blood. There is also evidence to suggest these compounds cause inflammation and alter hormone levels throughout the body.

Though subcutaneous fat is the type everyone wants to shed, visceral belly fat is the one that is crucial to lose. It’s also easier than subcutaneous fat to lose. But there is a big problem.

Unlike subcutaneous fat, you cannot see visceral fat. The only way it can be seen is through an MRI or CT scan. However, researchers have found there is a correlation between body fat composition and the likelihood of visceral fat.

If you want an inexpensive way to know if you have visceral belly fat, look at yourself in a full-length mirror. If you have an apple-shaped body, with the biggest percentage of your body fat located above your waist, it is very likely you have visceral fat.

Another way to tell whether you have visceral belly fat is to take your waist measurements. Research shows women with a waist measurement of 35 inches or more and men with a measurement of 40 or more are likely to have visceral fat.

But appearance and measurements aren’t always reliable indicators of visceral belly fat. You can be skinny and fat and not know it.

Skinny fat: super-sneaky visceral belly fat

The term skinny fat refers to a person with a normal weight and body mass index (BMI) for their height but with a large amount of body fat and not enough muscle mass needed for optimal health.

Time was, you could look at someone and say they were at risk of a host of obesity-related diseases based on the amount of belly fat you observed. Not anymore. Because their lack of muscle balances out the weight of the extra fat, a person who is skinny fat is not overweight. But their level of visceral belly fat puts them at risk for all obesity-related diseases just the same.

Causes of visceral belly fat accumulation

There are many causes of visceral belly fat accumulation, most of them due to our modern, technologically advanced lifestyles. Though experts don’t agree on one single cause for bad belly fat accumulation, most of them agree that it is a complex issue. A combination of factors causes excess belly fat. Here are just a few of them.

Eating a poor-quality diet

One of the biggest contributors to bad belly fat is the standard American diet of heavily processed foods, sugars, and fast foods. Heavily processed foods are those that have been stripped of their fiber and most of their nutrients. They don’t resemble the animal or plant sources from which they originated. They are manufactured foods filled with toxic chemicals, preservatives, and other things you probably never heard of and can’t pronounce. And you’re putting them in your body several times a day.

Processed foods and sugars have been shown to cause insulin resistance, which commonly leads to weight gain and increased belly fat.

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Sedentary lifestyles

Americans also do not engage in much physical activity. Approximately 86% of Americans sit all day at their jobs. Then, when they get home, the average American adult spends over five hours a day watching television. (Source: 2016 Nielsen Report)

There are health consequences to sitting too much. Experts have coined it “Sitting Disease,” and research indicates prolonged sitting increases the risk for diabesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and too much belly fat. And working out regularly does not protect against the dangers of prolonged sitting. In fact, research shows prolonged sitting shortens the lifespan, regardless of whether you exercise.

Doctors don’t know why sitting might cause these health problems. One theory is prolonged sitting reduces muscles’ ability to burn fat, and another is that it might cause sluggish blood flow. This would explain why sitting too much might negatively affect the heart and blood pressure, eventually leading to heart disease or stroke.

Increased stress

We live in a stressful society. Approximately 66% of American families are ones in which both spouses work outside the home. Or they are single parents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau report from 2011, there are approximately 13.7 million single parents in America. Many of them work more than one job just to make ends meet.

In addition, everything is happening faster these days. It is a lot for the nervous system to adjust to, and on top of that, you’ve got work, family, social life, finances, and a lot of other stuff going on. It’s enough to make you feel like screaming sometimes. And there is a physiological reason for that.

You see, chronic stress causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol in your bloodstream. Cortisol prepares your body to fight or flee, meaning that it raises your blood pressure and your blood sugar levels. This can trigger anger and aggression. But the positive effect of cortisol — to save your life — doesn’t last long.

If your cortisol levels stay elevated for too long, you are at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression — and increased belly fat. Yep, the higher your cortisol levels, the more belly fat you accumulate, and that, as we’ve seen, just increases your risk for those and other diseases.

Environmental toxins

Researchers recently discovered environmental toxins could cause weight gain, particularly in the stomach region. Their research indicates these toxins disturb the body’s ability to balance blood sugar and metabolize cholesterol, which can lead to insulin resistance.

That toxic chemicals have a toxic effect on our bodies shouldn’t surprise anyone, given that we’re exposed to toxins our bodies weren’t designed to process. Paint thinners. Car exhaust fumes. Dryer sheets. Household cleaners. Asbestos. Pesticides. Herbicides. The list of toxic chemicals is endless, and they not only cause health problems but also bad belly fat.

Health risks of visceral belly fat

The health risks of visceral belly fat are the same as that of obesity, including:

  • Insulin resistance
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Fatty liver disease

How to lose visceral belly fat

Fortunately, you will reduce your risk of these conditions once you lose your bad belly fat. The good news, too, is that research shows visceral fat is easier to lose than subcutaneous fat. Here are some ways to lose bad belly fat.

Eat more whole foods.

A silhouette of a young woman leaping into the air on the beach at sunset.Eating more real whole foods is the most important thing you can do to lower your setpoint weight and reduce bad belly fat. Whole foods come from nature, not a box or a package, or a can. Non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and low-fructose fruits are nutritious powerhouses that blast that stubborn bad belly fat. Grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, wild-caught salmon, and other lean meats provide plenty of vitamins and minerals that also help your body burn this fat.

And don’t become stressed thinking you have to totally overhaul your diet. Make little changes at a time. For instance, you can eat a whole food diet an entire day once a week for a month and then extend it to two days a week the following month. Any change makes a difference in your health and in the amount of bad belly fat, you lose.

Eat fewer foods with added sugars

Refined sugar has been shown to cause insulin resistance and contribute to belly fat. This is particularly true if you drink your sugar. If you want to protect your health, it is best to cut sugar almost totally out of your diet.

Keep in mind that most of the sugar you consume doesn’t come out of a sugar bowl. Sugar is added to over 70% of processed foods, even items that don’t taste sweet. Crackers. Soups. Tomato sauce. Gravies. They all contain sugar, and when you eat a lot of processed foods, your sugar intake shoots up. This is especially true if you drink sodas, a processed food product that is loaded with sugar!

If you choose to eat more whole foods, eventually switching to more of a whole-food diet, you will automatically cut your sugar intake by more than half. Your bad belly fat will start melting away.

Perform eccentric exercises

Many people think working out regularly burns belly fat, but that’s just not true. Has it ever worked for you? As previously mentioned, prolonged exercise contributes to belly fat because it increases cortisol levels in the blood.

Eccentric exercise, however, has no such effect on cortisol levels. An eccentric exercise focuses on the downward part of the movement. For instance, if you’re performing a bicep curl, the concentric movement is when you lift the weight toward your chest; the eccentric movement is when you lower it away from your body. Eccentric exercises work deep muscle fibers that traditional exercises never touch. Because it works all muscle fibers, eccentric exercises should only be performed once a week for 10-20 minutes.

Many studies have shown eccentric exercises reduce insulin resistance more than concentric exercises do, which helps you lose belly fat.

Reduce stress

Taking time to relax is an important step you must take if you want to lose your bad belly fat. Making relaxation a part of your routine will reduce your cortisol levels, making it much easier for you to shed those extra inches around your midsection. Here are some relaxing activities you might want to try.

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Walking in the park
  • Having dinner with friends
  • Roller skating
  • Having friends over for a cookout
  • Renting a romantic movie and watching it with that special someone

The SANE way to lose belly fat

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Next step: Lose belly fat with SANE

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