Ask the Expert: Can You Target Belly Fat?

Ask the Expert: Can You Target Belly Fat?

The Short Answer

You’d better sit down because, believe it or not, you can—albeit not in the way you probably want.

If we’re talking spare tires, muffin tops, or that last bit of pooch covering your six-pack, then you’re S.O.L. That sort of stomach fat (i.e., the kind you can see and pinch) is called “subcutaneous” fat, and you can’t “spot-reduce” problem areas. Instead, you need keep exercising hard and eating right to reduce overall body fat. Your genetics will determine how and at what speed the weight comes off, but rest assured that your belly will eventually shrink to more shapely (and firmer) dimensions.

However, if you’re “apple shaped” or if you’re sporting a big ol’ beer belly, that’s likely a different kind of flab called “visceral” fat. Research shows that it is, in fact, targetable, which is fortunate since it’s much more insidious than the subcutaneous variety. Residing deep within your torso, visceral fat wraps itself around your heart, liver, and other major organs, and secretes chemicals that fuel inflammation. Your best strategy for reducing it is to work out hard, stress less, sleep more, and make cleaner food choices.

The Long Answer

Subcutaneous fat is the kind that flops over your jeans and adds to your chin count. It comes from the Latin word for “under the skin,” and it covers most of your body. It builds up in different places in different people, although women often build it up in their thighs and rear ends, much to the appreciation of Sir Mix-A-Lot, Queen, Nicki Minaj, and Spinal Tap.

You can’t spot reduce subcutaneous fat, so if you have a problem area, you have no choice but to burn fat all over your body until your genes decide to focus on that area. Also, keep in mind that subcutaneous fat is found between skin and muscle. Sometimes, especially if you’re new to exercise, your muscles will firm up, pushing this fat out and creating the illusion that you’re gaining more fat. If this happens, just be patient—the illusion will eventually vanish and your legs will become thinner.

Generally speaking, subcutaneous isn’t the most dangerous kind of fat. That’s not to say that this type of fat isn’t hard on your joints or that it can’t lead to chronic health issues. But when you read about fat being linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, chances are you’re reading about visceral fat.

Visceral fat is found deep inside your gut, and it builds up primarily around your stomach, intestines, and liver. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you can’t pinch it unless you get all medieval on yourself. Some people call it “deep belly fat” and it’s been linked to all kinds of issues including insulin resistance and cardiovascular issues.

A little visceral fat is normal. We tend to accumulate more of it later in life thanks to a dated bit of evolution that assumes we have less muscle as we age, causing fat to build up to protect our internal organs. The problems start piling up when you have too much of it. The most precise way to measure visceral fat is through an MRI or CT scan, but your waist circumference can also give you an indication of how bad (or good) the situation is. Red flag numbers are more than 35 inches for ladies and more than 40 inches for the guys.

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Here are 6 Things You Can Do to Help Reduce Visceral Belly Fat

The obvious answer is to stop eating so much junk and to get some exercise, for Pete’s sake! Beyond that, visceral fat can be targeted through these basic lifestyle tweaks.

1. Sleep longer

One 6-year study, on 293 adults ranging in age from 18 on 65, showed that when people increased their sleep from less than six hours a night to between seven or eight hours, they experienced a significant drop in visceral fat.

2. Exercise harder

A study on middle-aged obese women with metabolic syndrome showed that high intensity exercise (such as Beachbody programs Insanity and CORE DE FORCE) did a better job of banishing visceral fat than low intensity exercise (such as sustained jogging) or no exercise at all. (Duh.) The women also experienced a reduction in abdominal subcutaneous fat. (Double duh.) Luckily, Beachbody On Demand offers several workout programs that focus on high intensity interval training (HIIT).

3. Eat more soluble fiber

A five-year study on minorities ranging in age from 18 to 81 showed that if you add soluble fiber to your diet, and combine it with exercise, you can accelerate visceral fat loss. You’ll find soluble fiber in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears, and Brussels sprouts.

4. Cut out excess carbs

One study on people with type 2 diabetes showed that a low-calorie, low-carb diet burns more visceral fat than a low-calorie, high-carb diet. That being said, the researchers’ version of low-carb meant that 40 percent of total calories came from carbohydrates, as opposed to 65 percent for a high carb diet. Most of Beachbody’s nutrition programs recommend a 40 percent carb ratio. In my opinion, 40 percent is not particularly low for most people, unless you’re really active and need to eat more carbs for fuel.

5. Lean towards unsaturated fats

Researchers in Sweden fed 39 young men 750 extra calories daily for seven weeks in the form of very big muffins. One group were fed muffins with saturated fat in the form of palm oil and the second group ate muffins with polyunsaturated fat in the form of sunflower oil. Not surprisingly, the group fed saturated fat gained more visceral fat (as well as subcutaneous fat and liver fat) than the group fed polyunsaturated fat. Given that there are many types of both saturated and unsaturated fat, it’s unfair to categorically condemn all saturated fats, but it’s still worth considering or at least reducing. Regardless, no good has ever come from adding a giant muffin to your daily meal plan—so don’t do that.

6. Stop stressing so much

Stress triggers the production of cortisol, which increases visceral fat. The link is that simple. A little stress, like the kind your body experiences working out, is fine, but chronic stress can be problematic. Studies on both humans and monkeys confirm this. Admittedly, telling someone to stop stressing is a little like telling someone to “be funny” or “don’t look at the giant mole on my forehead” (i.e., it’s easier said than done), but de-stressing your life is possible. You just need to be patient. Look into things like meditation or yoga, or just take a couple minutes each day to stop and breathe deeply. If you’re new to yoga, try Beachbody’s 3 Week Yoga Retreat. You’ll be thinner—and saner—in no time.

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