Belly fat is much more than a dormant wad of excess calories lodged inside your abdomen. It’s a highly active, potentially dangerous organ that stress, poor diet and lack of exercise work together to create. It’s easy to identify some people with belly fat if they have the classic apple shape or beer belly. But what about people who aren’t obviously overweight? Can they have belly fat?
Many people feel resigned to the idea that they’re destined to have a big belly because it’s a common and relatively normal part of aging. Not so. It’s also a myth that belly fat is hard to lose and you may as well just live with it. This myth has been promoted by the widespread belief that you have to achieve some “ideal weight” in order to be healthier and feel better. Again—not true!
Here’s the truth about these belly fat myths.
Belly fat myth 1: You have to be overweight to have it.
Fat can collect in your belly even if you’re not technically overweight or obese. A study was done recently to examine the effects of modest weight gain on healthy adults. Participants had their diets manipulated to take their BMI from an average of 23.1 to 24.1—still below the cutoff for “overweight.” The people who gained the weight showed dramatic increases in their belly fat mass—and big changes in their blood levels of insulin, triglycerides and cholesterol—all in the direction of greater risk for heart disease and other chronic disorders.
Other studies have shown that even lean people can have belly fat buildup, and this belly fat is just as metabolically active and dangerous as it is in the overweight and obese. If you’re eating poorly, not getting enough exercise, and not managing stress well, you could be carrying belly fat even if you look thin.
In fact, there’s a term for this—normal weight obesity, which is the term that refers to a person with a “healthy” weight and/or BMI but too high a percentage of body fat. More and more, we’re finding out that focusing on weight isn’t nearly as important as maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping your belly flat.
Belly fat myth 2: It’s hard to get rid of.
It may seem that there’s nothing but bad news about belly fat, but here’s some great news—it’s the easiest kind of fat to get rid of. In fact, belly fat is the first to go in 99 percent of all people who start losing weight. That means that you will start reaping the health benefits of belly fat loss right from the start, and with every pound you lose.
This makes sense when you recall that belly fat is an emergency energy store, meant to be easily broken down in case of danger or food shortage. Starting on this program or any other that involves eating a little less and moving a little more takes your body out of energy storage mode and into energy burning. The quickest and easiest way for your body to do that is to start breaking down belly fat.
Belly fat myth 3: It’s a normal part of aging.
While the risk of belly fat goes up with age, that doesn’t mean it’s an inevitable part of getting older. Belly fat appears as stress levels go up and diets become poorer, but for the aging, it’s probably most strongly linked to drops in physical activity for most adults, and to hormonal changes that come with menopause in women. It may be harder to keep belly fat at bay as you get older, but it’s certainly not impossible.
Human growth hormone (HGH) is released in ever-decreasing amounts as many people age, and these lower levels of HGH are associated with belly fat buildup. For years, it was assumed that HGH levels fell naturally with aging. Recent research has shown that as long as you keep moving, your HGH levels won’t fall as far as those in a sedentary person—and HGH helps keep your lean-to-fat body composition in a healthier range by supporting and maintaining skeletal muscle development. No matter how old you are, you’re always eligible for a lean belly and active, vibrant body!
Dr. Claire Wheeler and registered dietitian Diane A. Welland are the authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Belly Fat Weight Loss.