Who can fault Santa Claus? But….that belly! Mrs. Claus should probably be suggesting “Ho-Ho-Hold the cookies, Dear!”
Seriously though, the paunch, the so-called beer belly, the boy baby bump, the middle-aged spread – whatever you want to call the protruding stomach that many men consider to be the curse of growing older – is no laughing matter.
Studies continue to point to belly fat as a serious and sometimes overlooked health risk. While men are more likely to accumulate excess adipose tissue in the mid-section, women are certainly not immune from this.
And spoiler alert: a big belly is not solely the result of too many beers. In fact, while alcohol can play a role in belly fat, the real culprit is excess insulin.
Insulin, as you might know, is a hormone that assists in the regulation of blood sugar levels and in helping the body to efficiently use the glucose it takes in from eating first carbohydrates, but also to a lesser extent protein and fat. The truth is – if we are taking in too many carbohydrates or too much food altogether on an ongoing basis that our bodies can’t use for immediate energy needs, insulin tells our liver and our muscles to store this energy for later.
But there is finite space in those places and when we continue the ongoing consumption of things like beer or other alcohol, or ultra-processed foods like baked goods, sugar-sweetened beverages, high-carb options like potatoes or rice, salty snacks or frankly just ongoing cheeseburger, pizza or pasta meals – we set ourselves up to become insulin resistant and therefore unable to metabolize foods effectively.
This means that insulin can no longer escort the glucose into the cells to be used because the receptors on the cells have essentially slammed the door shut and locked it tight, saying “Ummm… totally full here! No more room. You extra glucose molecules go find somewhere else to lounge.”
And so these extra ‘guests’ go check into the Lipogenesis (which means building new fat cells) Lounge in the Beer Belly Hotel. That’s because more than any other place in our body, our mid-section has the most insulin receptors, so there are more places for the fat to hang out.
I’m making light about this scenario, but insulin resistance is a serious step along the road to Type 2 diabetes and the beer belly is a sure sign that something is out of balance.
And once these unwanted guests take root – it’s hard to get them evicted.
Beer belly fat is visceral – meaning it is deep inside the abdomen, underneath the muscle and all wrapped around the internal organs as part of the omentum, a netlike type of fat that helps to hold all our organs together and stable.
This visceral fat is correlated with many significant health concerns including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, high triglycerides, sleep apnea, many forms of cancer, and of course, type 2 diabetes and all the residual complications that can result from that disease. We’re talking neuropathy, amputation of limbs, blindness, kidney disease and so much more.
To provide some perspective, type 2 diabetes is the fastest growing chronic health condition in the world. And it is totally preventable and reversible in many many cases through diet and lifestyle changes.
So how to have a beer belly breakthrough
First off, let’s be clear – you can’t outrun your fork. Men tend to believe that if they just hit the gym harder, they can lose the gut and be healthy.
Good health – whether from a preventative or a risk-reduction perspective – is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise/movement. I’m not just saying this because I am a nutritionist.
Getting away from a sedentary lifestyle is definitely important to keep insulin balanced and reduce excess body fat, especially the subcutaneous fat that lives just below the skin.
But the main cause of a big belly is the food you eat and how your body is processing it or storing it.
Here are my top 5 recommendations to start the process of overcoming that big belly:
- Reduce the amount of ultra-processed food consumed. Be especially conscious of the 4 white devils – flour, sugar, dairy and salt. Yeah, I know – all the stuff in snacks, junk food, take-out meals and comfort food – but start by being aware and thinking about how to make small consistent changes. By the way, by ditching the ultra-processed stuff, you’ll have more room in your meals for some higher fibre, more nutrient-dense foods like veggies, lean proteins and healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, seeds and nuts. Start there if you are looking to make changes.
- Look carefully at your alcohol intake. Beer has a high carbohydrate level but other drinks do as well. If you are going to enjoy the occasional libation – vodka/gin with soda and a squeeze of lime or lemon, or a very dry Dirty Martini is probably your best bet. The sugary mixes for most other cocktails will derail you. And don’t be fooled about ‘diet’ sodas – there’s plenty of research now that shows that even artificial sweeteners have an impact on insulin levels.
- Consider stretching your ‘fasting and feasting’ timeframes each day. There is ample research now that shows that ongoing snacking – even on healthy foods – keeps your insulin levels high. Giving your body a longer window without food allows these levels to fall back to normal levels. Stop eating by 7pm at night and don’t have your first meal until 1pm the next day and you’re on track for an 18 hour fast. There are other types of Intermittent Fasting but this one is quite simple as an introductory option. Be sure to stay hydrated – water, black tea, black coffee, herbal teas are all fine to consume during the 18 hour window when you will not be eating.
- Reduce your sedentary lifestyle. Weight training can help balance metabolic processes and aerobic exercise (even brisk walking or bike riding) can amp up your body’s response to insulin. But don’t forget – exercise is complementary to changing your diet. It bears repeating: you cannot outrun your fork no matter what our personal trainer or the guys at the gym try to tell you.
- Sleep – it’s a vicious circle. Bigger bellies = worse sleep. But you need better, more restful sleep to help release the weight around your middle and keep insulin balanced. That said, start with ensuring that you do not have sleep apnea. If you do, you may need some technology – called a CPAP – to help you during the initial changes. Your doctor or a sleep clinic can help. But if you make sleep a priority and put some actions into place to start to improve it, you’ll likely have more success with losing the belly fat as well.
Finally – know your number. If your waist size is more than 40” for men and more than 35” for women, then you are into Beer Belly territory and need to be aware. You can read more about that here.
One more thing: I’ve heard some people say that their beer belly is genetic because their Dad and/or their Brothers or Uncles also have it. Genetics do play a role in how fat is distributed around our bodies. But it’s far more likely that your family all have the same eating and lifestyle habits and that’s the biggest contributor.