Don’t count on the latest diet to shrink an expanding waistline. Belly fat is stubborn and unlike fat in the thighs, buttocks and hips, which visibly diminishes when you cut calories, belly fat tends to stick around. Beneath the subcutaneous fat that you can pinch with your fingers, fat deep in the abdomen, or visceral fat, secretes inflammatory substances that increase the risk for heart attack, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, even if you’re not overweight.
Here are some approaches to shrink your belly.
1. Stop stressing over losing weight!!! That’s still stressing, and stress increases our production of cortisol, which causes the body to produce more visceral fat. People who worry about weight (and other things) find it harder to cut back and to say no to offered treats.
2. Cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life. According to yoga and Ayurvedic medicine (a system of healing that originated in India), an overly busy mind can play as big a role in weight gain as diet or exercise. We all need to step back from the chaos of life and give our nervous system a chance to unwind. Take it one step at a time. Do less multitasking. Spend less time on the Internet and watching television—especially when you’re eating.
3. Exercise in moderation. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can obviously be good for weight loss. Getting “gym rats” to chill is not easy, but chilling can break the inability to lose belly weight. Be sure to get plenty of exercise, but enjoy it. Don’t let it be stressful—make it a soothing part of your day. Practice deep belly breathing when you can. Go for a bike ride…swim in a lake…take a hike in nature. Exercise that is relaxing may burn just as many calories as a do-or-die gym workout but without the stress-related rise in cortisol. Another little known plus is having an aerobics instructor who is more of a stand-up comic and less of a drill sergeant.
4. Eat more fresh, unprocessed food. What really matters for health and healthy weight is the quality of your food. Don’t get stuck in the low-carb, high carb debate. Worry less about micronutrients such as specific vitamins, minerals and types of fat or your protein/carbohydrate balance, and instead focus on eating more fresh vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds. If you eat animal foods, choose free-range and pasture-raised meat and dairy products, organic if possible.
5. Cut back on refined sugar. If you follow the advice above and avoid processed foods, you’ll naturally consume less sugar, refined grains (such as white bread) and other “simple” carbohydrates. This will help prevent insulin surges that can lead to more visceral fat. As always, balance is important. Just be aware that any processed food—including many snacks that are marketed as healthier alternatives—will make it harder to control your weight.
Thank you to my Yoga-as-Medicine guru Tim McCall, MD for his help.