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All fat is not created equal. Abdominal fat, particularly the visceral fat stored deep inside, is much more dangerous than the flab on your hips, butt, or thighs. The reason: Location, location, location. Think of it this way: Your liver and pancreas are like stately apartment buildings -- they're efficient, well-oiled machines that have been there forever. Belly fat is like the loud, disruptive neighbor who buys the building next door and turns it into an all-night dance club and lets the whole place go to seed. Before you know it, there goes the neighborhood.
But this toxic fat doesn't have to take up permanent residence next to these vital organs. Groundbreaking research shows that exercise may be the key to blasting it off your belly. Results of a 20-week study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found that women who exercised and dieted reduced abdominal fat-cell size by about 18 percent; women who only counted calories lost weight but didn't reduce fat-cell size. Generally, the greater the fat-cell size, the greater the amount of abdominal fat. The good news: When you start working out and watching what you eat, toxic abdominal fat may be the first fat you shed, says Donald Hensrud, MD, an associate professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic.
To fight flab effectively, it helps to understand exactly what you're targeting. Here's what lies beneath:
Subcutaneous fat is right under your skin. It's commonly found in your thighs, butt, and abdomen. "When our hunter-gatherer ancestors would eat all summer preparing for the winter famine, their bodies would store fat there before using it up," says Kylie Kavanagh, a researcher at Wake Forest University. But this fat isn't necessary -- or healthy -- today. It's also significantly more dangerous when it's in your abdomen, because it can adversely affect your internal organs.
Muscle is the next layer down. More muscle means you burn calories faster, which helps with weight loss. And since it's denser and more compact than fat, muscle gives you a strong, lean look. So build it up, baby!
Visceral or "toxic" fat: Found deep in your abdomen, this is the true troublemaker. Visceral fat has access to your portal circulation, the highway of blood vessels around your organs, and it likes to hop on. This can affect your liver's ability to manage cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease, says Pamela Peeke, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, author of Body for Life for Women and a FITNESS advisory board member. "Not only that, but visceral fat causes insulin -- the hormone responsible for storing fat -- to become less effective, making you more susceptible to diabetes," Dr. Peeke says. Studies have also linked excess visceral fat to an increased risk of breast cancer, although experts do not fully understand the connection.
Now that you've got a clear picture of the enemy within, it's time to fight back -- and win. That means getting rid of as much abdominal fat as possible, no matter which type it is. "Subcutaneous or visceral, all fat in the abdomen can have negative effects on your health," says Dr. Hensrud. "It's important to target both."
The lifestyle choices you make every day directly influence the size of your tummy -- and we're not just talking about food. So...Stop being quite so happy at happy hour.
If you drink in moderation -- no more than one cocktail a day -- the calories from the alcohol will likely burn off. But when you overdo it, they end up turning into fat in your abdomen. Experts say this is because alcohol inhibits fat-burning in the stomach, although no one fully understands how or why. As a result, calories from alcohol are more likely to become part of your visceral fat layer, making the possibility of developing a beer (or margarita or wine) gut all too real.Stop lighting up.
Like alcohol, nicotine prevents fat-burning in the abdomen. So smokers are likely to have a greater amount of visceral fat than nonsmokers do, even if they're not overweight, says Dr. Hensrud. "Studies have found that smokers tend to have a lower body-mass index than nonsmokers do, but the dangerous abdominal fat they often carry cancels out any positive effects."Stop eating trans fats.
According to a new study, these artery-clogging fats are more likely to go straight to your belly than other types. Wake Forest University researchers fed monkeys the same amount of calories, but one group got some of its fat from trans fats and the other got all of its fat from heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. The monkeys on the trans-fats diet gained nearly four times as much weight and had 30 percent more fat in their abdomens than the primates who ate the healthy fat. "One theory is that the body doesn't know what to do with this man-made fat, and the abdomen is a quick place to store it," says lead researcher Kavanagh. "Another idea is that trans fats interfere with insulin and its job to distribute fat throughout the body." The American Heart Association recommends eating as little trans fats as possible -- less than two grams a day. Easy ways to do that:
Read the ingredients list on snack foods labeled "0 grams trans fats." One serving of these products may contain 0.49 grams of this unhealthy fat. "The higher that partially hydrogenated oils are on the ingredients list, the more likely it is that a product has close to 0.5 gram of trans fats a serving," says Lona Sandon, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokesperson in Dallas. So dole out just one portion of crackers or cookies and then put the box away.
Make your own muffins -- or cake or cookies. The baked goods sold at convenience stores and coffee-and-doughnut shops are likely full of trans fats, says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of Healthy Appetite on the Food Network. When you bake your own, using healthy ingredients such as canola oil and fresh fruit, you eliminate these fats.
Hold the fried foods. "It's not necessarily the oil that's unhealthy, but that the frying process changes the chemical structure of it, leading to an excess of trans fats," explains Sandon. Unless a restaurant boasts that it's serving trans-fat-free foods -- as do Wendy's, KFC, and Arby's -- you can assume you're getting a substantial side of it with those onion rings.
Regular heart-pumping exercise is one of the most effective ways to get fat off your middle. "Diet alone may reduce your weight, but it probably won't change your body's shape the way exercise can," says Tongjian You, PhD, now an assistant professor in exercise and nutrition sciences at SUNY Buffalo and lead researcher for the groundbreaking Wake Forest study on fat-cell size. "Abdominal fat may be more active and responsive to exercise than fat in other areas," he says. So get moving!Start eating healthy fats.
To lose flab around your middle, you don't have to cut every bit of fat out of your diet. The key is to get about 30 percent of your daily calories from fat, primarily heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which could help you live longer (plus, you'll be less likely to crave the unhealthy kinds). New research from the Harvard Nurses' Health Study found that women who ate a diet rich in healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts, slashed their risk of heart disease -- the number-one killer of women -- by as much as 33 percent. Try adding some almonds to your afternoon yogurt and cook with olive oil as often as possible.Start getting at least seven hours of shut-eye a night.
James Gangwisch, PhD, a researcher at Columbia University Medical Center, has the most compelling lights-out research we've heard. In his review of thousands of women, he found that those who slept five hours a night were almost twice as likely to be obese as women who got seven hours. Studies show that lack of sleep can make you hungrier -- it knocks the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin out of whack, so you crave sweet, salty snacks. And it can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may be associated with abdominal fat.Start playing your cards right.
"Think of your genes as the hand you're dealt in a game of poker," says Dr. Hensrud. "It may not be as good as you'd like, but it's how you play that matters." This is particularly true if you're apple shaped (meaning that you store fat around your abdomen) rather than pear shaped (fat goes to your hips and thighs first). "For optimal health, we should all eat less junk food, exercise regularly, drink in moderation, and not smoke," says Dr. Hensrud. "But these steps are even more important for people who are apple shaped, because they are at increased risk of diabetes and heart disease." By staying at a healthy weight and keeping your waist size well under 35 inches earlier in life, you're setting yourself up to stay trim as you get older, when your risk for developing many diseases increases.Start loving your body.
Research shows that when women feel bad about their weight and themselves, they're more likely to give up on their diet goals and eat too much. So do things that make you feel good -- and that are good for you. Take a walk. Treat yourself to a massage. Before you know it, that extra ab flab will be nothing but a fleeting memory.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2007.