March 07, 2015

10 Reasons You Can’t Lose Your Gut

Packing a spare tire doesn’t just make it hard to button your jeans. Unlike fat on other body areas, stomach flab is largely composed of what’s called visceral fat, which surrounds your vital organs and is linked to a host of health issues.

"Excess belly fat is even more dangerous than being generally overweight, since visceral fat can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and dementia," says Los Angeles–based nutritionist Maggie Moon, RD, owner of Everyday Healthy Eating. If you’ve been trying to cut down your gut without success, check out our list below to see what you’ve been doing wrong.

You Don’t Sleep Enough 

Sleep doesn’t just recharge your mental and physical batteries; it helps your body maintain proper levels of appetite-regulating hormones. Score too little shuteye, and your system will pump out more ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry. Meanwhile, levels of leptin, a hormone that promotes feelings of fullness, will take a hit, says Moon. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while probably won’t affect your love handles. But consistently not sleeping a good seven or eight hours nightly can, even if you don’t feel exhausted.

You Drink Too Much Booze  

They don’t call it a beer belly for nothing. “Alcohol calories tend to be extra calories you forget you’re consuming,” says Moon. And since booze has seven calories per gram — nearly twice as much as carbs or protein — those forgotten calories add up fast.

Compounding the problem is that your body has no appreciation for a good scotch. “It treats all alcohol as poison and processes it quickly, leaving fewer resources to metabolize food,” says Moon. “The result is that more food calories get stored as fat.” Even worse, alcohol decreases the hormones that trigger fullness while lowering your eating (among other) inhibitions.

You’re Not Targeting Your Core 

All the sit-ups in the world won’t spot-reduce fat from your stomach. But here’s why you can’t blow off core-strengthening moves: As you lose belly fat via a healthy diet and ramped up exercise, the muscles that start to emerge will be solid and defined, and you’ll sport a flatter waist faster than if you ignored your abs and obliques. Andrew Aranzamendez, NASM performance enhancement specialist at Life Time Athletic in Montvale, New Jersey, suggests developing a daily routine of several sets and reps of old-school proven core-builders: regular planks and side plank holds, bicycle crunches, hollow rocks, and medicine ball and V-up style sit-ups.

You’re too Stressed

If you tend to stuff your face when you’re nervous, no wonder you have a spare tire. But stress also affects belly fat on a sneaky cellular level. “Chronic anxiety tells your system to pump out stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn signal that you need a replenishment of calories, particularly from foods high in fat and sugar,” says Moon.

Cortisol also prompts your system to create new fat cells, which tend to show up on the stomach as visceral fat, the dangerous kind that lines the internal organs in your abdomen and is linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, says Moon.

You’re Skipping the Weight Room 

Your evening run or pickup basketball game works wonders for your heart. But if you’re not incorporating strength training, you’re not effectively fighting gut fat. Research bears this out. A 2014 Harvard University study found that men who clocked 20 minutes of daily weight training along with a cardio workout gained less belly flab compared to those who only did cardio or skipped the gym altogether. Muscle burns more calories than fat, says Aranzamendez. “So the more muscle mass you develop, the higher your metabolism will be, even when you’re stuck behind a desk at work.  

You’re Doing Cardio Wrong

Speaking of cardio, parking the treadmill at moderate intensity for 30 or so minutes won’t yield the same belly-reducing results as working in several short bursts of high-intensity intervals says Aranzamendez. Again, it all comes down to overall calorie burn: the more you torch, the more weight you’ll lose overall, including on your stomach.

And if you can ramp things up so your entire cardio routine is high-intensity, you’ll burn even more calories and dissolve your gut faster. Research from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise lends support. Study subjects who did high-intensity cardio had better results reducing their waist size than participants in a low-impact cardio group.

You Indulge in Sugary, Starchy Foods 

"Packaged foods loaded with sugar, salt, and starchy carbs tend to have lots of hidden calories, which end up at your middle," says Moon. Sugar and simple carbs can also spike your body’s insulin production, and that in turn may lead you to store more calories along your stomach, says Aranzamendez. Fill your plate with lean protein, complex carbs, and low-glycemic fruits and veggies, which are filling and keep insulin steady.

Your Metabolism Has Slowed Down 

Like so many other body functions, your calorie-burning engine takes a dive as you age, says Moon. For the average guy, that’s about fewer 10 calories per day with every year according to the Mayo Clinic. Those 10 daily calories sound small, but add up to about a pound of annual weight gain. Even if the food you consume is lean and nutritious, it boils down to math: Take in more calories than you burn off, and your stomach is not going to budge. Calculate the daily caloric needs for your age here. Then, to reduce your gut, make sure your intake is below that benchmark. Start with 100-200 calorie deficit per day (factoring in exercise) so that you’re not starving. If you have substantial weight loss goals, more than 10 pounds, work up to a 400-500 calorie deficit per day.

You’re Not Eating Enough Fiber 

There’s more to the belly fat-fighting powers of plant food than complex carbs and low sugar levels. The soluble fiber (the kind that absorbs water and makes you feel full) found in beans, vegetables, and fruit has been shown to reduce levels of visceral fat, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Obesity. Researchers found that consuming 10 grams of soluble fiber a day was enough to see benefits — that’s the equivalent of a half-cup of beans or two small apples.

You’re Eating the Wrong Kind of Fat

The kind of fat you consume can determine where it lands on your body. A study published last year in Diabetes found that people who ingested excess calories by eating polyunsaturated fats (such as sunflower oil, olive oil, and omega-3s) developed less belly flab. Another gut-boosting fat to avoid is trans fat. Made from partially hydrogenated oils and often found in processed or fast foods, it’s also been linked to love handles, says Moon.

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