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Belly fat: What you don’t see in the mirror

Millions of Americans struggle to prevent or lose accumulated belly fat. Many times, the No. 1 focus is our appearance. However, belly fat is also terrible for your health.

There are two types of fat storage in the human body: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat. In most people, 90% of body fat is subcutaneous. This fat lies just below the skin and is unhealthy when you accumulate too much of it. However, visceral fat is that stubborn “belly fat” that lies beneath the abdominal wall, surrounding the liver, intestines and other organs. It produces substances that can create serious health risks that researchers have linked to a wide variety of diseases and conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insulin resistance and low-level inflammation.

Are you carrying too much visceral belly fat? The easiest way is to know is a quick tape measurement of your waistline at the level of your belly button, level with the top of your hip bone. While we all come in different shapes and sizes, a waist circumference of 35 inches or larger in women or 40 inches or larger in men is generally a potential sign of excess visceral fat. As you age, keep an eye on whether your belly fat is growing using this same measurement.

The good news: Visceral fat responds better to diet and exercise than fat on the hips and thighs.

According to Harvard research, exercise can help reduce your waist circumference by losing visceral belly fat and gaining muscle mass. Shoot to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days, such as brisk walking or bicycling at a casual pace. Studies have shown that you can help trim visceral fat or prevent its growth with both aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) and strength training (exercising with weights). Spot exercises, such as sit-ups, can tighten abdominal muscles but won’t help you lose visceral fat.

Diet also plays a role. Eat a balanced diet. I know the phrase “balanced diet” is so vague – all it means is to eat a little protein, a little carbohydrate, a little fat with every meal you eat. This allows the body to get a variety of nutrients, while being able to follow a lower carbohydrate diet, which helps remove visceral fat quicker. Of course, foods containing refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup are villains here.

Two additional ways to use nutrition to promote lower belly fat are to eat high-protein breakfasts and eat more soluble-fiber foods such as oats, peas, black beans, apples, citrus fruit, root vegetables, Brussels sprouts, avocados, broccoli, berries, spinach and quinoa to name a few.

Finally, you might have guessed it, sleep is important as well. A five-year study found that adults younger than 40 who slept five hours or less a night accumulated significantly more visceral fat. Shoot for at least six to eight hours of sleep per night. A healthy sleep routine allows your body to regulate hormones more efficiently, which helps to prevent as well as reduce visceral belly fat.

Fran Sutherlin is a local registered dietitian, health coach, speaker and owner of Sustainable Nutrition, which has offices in Durango and Bayfield and offers virtual-coaching options. She can be reached at 444-2122 or fran@fransutherlin.com.