It’s a modern day problem that seems to hit us as we get older; sometimes called ‘The Middle Age Spread’. No, not a medieval invasion but an increased and unwanted settling of fat around the mid-section (arguably even more gruesome and unwanted than the aforementioned historic invasion).
It’s a common issue that faces many of us in today’s stressful, sugar-fuelled society and I’m often asked to help clients to ‘get rid of this here’ (client points to tummy). You may think that the answer lies in crunches, sit ups or the latest bit of kit but ‘Spot reduction’ is an over-simplification. Doing only ab crunches thinking it will target and lose the fat from your belly won’t work. You need to take a whole body approach.
Getting rid of the fat around the middle is not just to look and feel better, it’s also to reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure. Calculating your waist to hip ratio is a good place to start. Divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference and you should get a number under 0.8 for women and for men lower than 0.9. If your numbers are higher than this you should consider trying to lose fat around your middle.
So here are my top tips (based on science not showbiz or surgery) to help blast the fat and make a happier, healthier you at the same time.
1. Control the carbs
It’s sometimes said if ‘you are what you eat’ then ‘fat makes you fat’; well recent scientific evidence has revealed this to be a far bigger simplification than we could have imagined. Evidence shows us that fat is vital for a healthy diet and that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) fat from foods such as eggs, salmon (and other oily fish), olives, nuts, seeds and avocados (yes, contrary to popular diet clubs, avocados are not the enemy), as well as a very small amount of saturated fat from dairy, red meat and certain oils, like coconut oil, are needed in the correct quantities for a balanced diet. Fats are vital for proper brain and nerve functioning; as an energy source; they provide insulation and protection for our organs; they are required for the transportation of the many fat-soluble vitamins we require; and are also the basic building blocks of our steroid hormones, needed to regulate many of our bodily processes.
Fats contain a high number of calories per gram, more than any other macronutrient (9 kcal), so you may think that limiting the fat you consume will ultimately reduce your overall calorie consumption and therefore you’ll lose weight. That may very well happen. However, in order to achieve a healthy balance of the correct nutrients and make the weight loss sustainable, fats should not be treated as the enemy and eliminating them from your diet in favour of carbohydrates is not the answer.
Carbohydrates are a much simpler topic. Apart from fibre (a form of carbohydrate which is essential for bowel function and maintaining a healthy digestive system), carbs are only useful as a provider of energy for the body and are the only non-essential macronutrient in your diet. In simple terms, you can split carbs into three different categories; green, brown and white.
- Green includes vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, peas, cauliflower.
- Brown includes potatoes (don’t treat potatoes as a vegetable- they are very starchy and are high in sugar), grains, pasta, rice, breads.
- White includes things like sweet desserts, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, syrups, the sugars from alcoholic beverages.
Green carbs are the best ones to consume, brown should be eaten in unprocessed moderation and white should be eliminated or at least dramatically reduced in your diet.
Now here’s the slightly more complex bit in the fat vs carbs debate….
If you imagine making a fire. The kindling and paper are the carbohydrates and the fat and protein are the coal and the wood. When you light a match and hold it to the combination of materials, the kindling will burn preferentially over the coal and wood; the same goes for carbs in the body. If you consume a lot of carbohydrate alongside your essential fat and protein, your body will use the carbs for energy over the fats every time. Therefore, if you are not active and so do not use the additional energy that you have consumed, the fats will be stored not used.
You can either create a fat-burning or a fat-storing environment, not both. High carbs consumed with your essential fats will lead to a fat-storing environment, but by reducing the carbs you consume, your body will become a more efficient fat-burning machine.
Cut down on processed brown carbs such as bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and when you do eat them go for wholegrain (e.g. brown rice and pasta) in small quantities. There are lots of easy substitutes – courgetti instead of spaghetti, aubergine slices instead of burger buns. Carbs should only make up a quarter of the space on your plate at the most. So mainly go for green carbs in the form of vegetables to give you a healthy helping of essential micronutrients too.
2. Stop the sugar
As well as the negative effect of causing a fat-storing environment, sugar in large quantities is also a killer.
Excessive sugar in your diet will lead to regular insulin spikes and inevitable erratic blood sugar levels. Sugars, like glucose, are the simple building blocks of the more complex starches found in bread, pasta and potatoes. As the sugars do not need to be broken down any further through digestion, once they’ve entered your mouth, they can immediately enter your blood stream. This causes a spike in blood glucose. The body reacts to this by attempting to return the concentration back to normal and either use or store the glucose, depending on your activity levels. The hormone, insulin is released from the pancreas, enters the bloodstream, eventually causing the blood glucose to enter the muscle cells for activity and the liver and fat cells for storage. When blood glucose levels fall, the hormone glucagon is released and causes the liver to give up it’s stores of glucose back into the blood stream to be used by muscle cells for energy. This hormone partnership works perfectly to regulate your blood sugar in a healthy individual.
However, over time high sugar consumption may lead to cells of the body becoming resistant to insulin and lead to reduced production of insulin due to pancreatic cell damage. This can often lead to Type 2 Diabetes which is a condition on the rise in the UK, mainly caused by obesity and poor diet (some genetic links have also been found). For more information visit: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/
Cut out or reduce the sweet treats and snacks like chocolate, sweets, cakes, biscuits and sugary soft drinks.
3. Plenty of protein
Protein is vital for a balanced diet and is needed for repair, growth, enzyme production, antibody production, healthy hair and nails. Protein is filling and so not only is it nutritionally valuable it will also keep you fuller for longer and stop you snacking on high sugar foods.
We all know how popular protein shakes, bars and supplements (even chocolate bars with added protein!) have become of late. However, do not be fooled by the word ‘Protein’ on the packaging! For some protein bars this can simply indicate that they have added a few more nuts to the bar or a small amount of protein powder. You need to be careful with protein powders as some are heat-treated at such high temperatures that the proteins contained within them are denatured and rendered useless. It is possible to achieve a satisfactory amount of protein from your diet, using natural sources and without having to shell out lots of money on bars and shakes.
Increase your daily protein consumption to around 1- 1.5 g protein per kilo bodyweight, choosing lean meat like chicken and fish, eggs, pulses or soya if you’re veggie. We often do not get enough protein in our diets, particularly at breakfast time (some ideas for high protein breakfasts here: Start your day the right way with these healthy, lower sugar breakfast swaps ), but you should aim to divide your protein consumption evenly throughout the day. So for a 60kg person aim for around 20 – 30g at breakfast; 30g at lunch; and 30g at dinner. This will keep you fuller for longer, meaning you’re less likely to snack on carb heavy foods. It will also support the repair of muscles after exercise, therefore maintaining lean muscle mass to ultimately burn more calories.
4. Ban the booze
Most of my clients name alcohol consumption as their biggest vice and the hardest thing to change. Alcohol has a whopping 9 calories per g. That is more than any macronutrient, and yet it has absolutely no value to our bodies. Yes, there are certain antioxidants found in red wine that are beneficial for us, however, it’s certainly not the alcohol providing the goodness. As well as the calories from alcohol it’s also laden with sugar too- especially wine, beer, cider and high sugar mixers found in cocktails. In one bottle of wine there are a staggering 600 empty calories (even more in dessert wines).
There are also many long term effects that alcohol has on the body that can prevent or hinder fat loss. https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol/effects-on-body#4.
Cut out all alcohol (!) for at least 1 month.
If you usually drink 2 bottles of wine a week, simply taking alcohol out of the diet for 1 month would see a reduction of well over 5,000 calories (that’s around 1.5 – 2 lb weight loss without any change to diet or any exercise!)
5. HIIT new heights
Contrary to some diet clubs (remaining nameless) exercise will not slow your weight loss down and it is a healthy way to lose weight safely and sustainably. Combining a healthy diet and a modest degree of calorie restriction with an increase in your physical activity will help you to, not only lose a steady and constant amount of weight from fat, but will also train your cardiovascular system, making you an all round healthier, happier person. If you restrict calories without exercise you are highly unlikely to maintain your lean mass (the more lean mass i.e. muscles, the greater the overall calorie burn) and your weight loss will not be as efficient or as sustainable. A combination of high intensity cardio and resistance exercises will place your body in the right conditions to burn calories even after you’ve finished exercising!
Do 3 – 4 HIIT sessions combined with weights/resistance training each week (Up to 1 hour per session is enough). As an extra bonus, it has been suggested that HIIT has an effect on your hormones, particularly ones which are responsible for the process involved in lowering fat from areas such as your belly. Here are a few previous posts that have some great moves for you to use: HIIT Zoo: Top 10 animal-inspired bodyweight moves and My top 10 fat-blasting moves to try today
6. Sleep not stress
Our society and the daily pressures that we face are slowly making us fat. Is it possible to get fat around the middle just from lack of sleep and a high stress lifestyle? Well, our hormones would suggest so.
Millions of years ago, our bodies were designed to react quickly to danger. We were on constant alert so we could run or fight if threatened. When your brain thinks your life is in danger it stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol. This ‘fight or flight’ response is incredibly clever and very efficient. It provides instant energy for 5-10 minutes allowing you to react to dangerous situations.
These days, many of us live under chronic stress. But our bodies can’t distinguish between late trains, missed appointments, infuriating work colleagues, family arguments and the actual life-threatening stress that it gears up to challenge. So it reacts exactly the same. The problem with many modern lifestyles is that stress (‘perceived threat’) is almost continuous and comes without the natural release that either fighting or fleeing might provide. Unless you do something physical all that extra energy, in the form of fat and glucose, has nowhere to go. It must be simply re-deposited as fat. The reason fat is stored around the middle is because it is close to the liver where it can most quickly be converted back into energy if needed. Your body tries to keep a convenient fat store ready for constant use and creates cravings and increases appetite to ensure good supplies of necessary fuel. Although this response can have a negative effect on our figures and appearance, the body is actually only trying to help keep you alive!
Try relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, yoga and meditation. Get a good night’s sleep and try to stick to a bedtime routine. Plan ahead and schedule your diary to give you plenty of rest time throughout the day. Don’t read emails in bed and turn off your computer, phone or tablet two hours before bed. If you would like more information on dealing with stress visit: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/stress
Stress is a hard thing to combat, but it really is worth a go for your physical and for your mental health.
Icing on the cake (not literally, obviously!)
As I’ve already mentioned, you won’t necessarily affect the fat loss from your middle simply by doing a few sit ups, but you can improve muscle definition, contouring and overall mobility and strength of your core. So do include some exercises to focus in on your mid-section when you’re working out. Crunches heavily target your abs, side plank hip raises and bicycle crunches will target your obliques (the bits down the sides) and exercises like planks and dead bugs will work the lot.
Something that lots of people complain about is bloating and the appearance of a bloated belly after eating or drinking certain things. This may be down to food intolerances, allergies, overeating, indigestion plus much more. If you’re suffering a lot of bloating after most meals, and your portion sizes are not the problem, then do go to see your healthcare professional to check for any food intolerances or allergies. However, an undeniable fact is that drinking or eating gassy things will almost certainly add to the bloat. So an easy step if you want to achieve a flatter tummy (not reduce fat) is to stop drinking fizzy drinks for at a while and notice the difference.
Common sense nutrition and lifestyle advice is actually the hardest thing to follow. Without quick fix promises and strict rules we can sometimes feel like we don’t know where to start; but use these basic tips one at a time and you’ll notice the difference slowly but surely, and definitely sustainably.
I’d love to hear from anyone who would like more information, links or references for further reading so please get in touch or comment below.
Thanks for reading. 🙂