In the run up to Christmas last year I caught myself doing something that was at once alarming but also strangely comforting. I was sitting in a slouched position in front of the television and with both hands gave my belly something akin to comforting slap. It was almost as if I had some contented pride in how round my belly had become. I reassured myself up to that point that my particular frontal protrusion was not a beer gut like most other blokes my age but in fact a diaphragm issue. If I just got my core a bit stronger my belly would be taut like in my twenties.
Hopping on the bathroom scales a day or so before New Year when those last minute new year’s resolutions are compiled – like – I’m going on a diet – I was aghast to find that I had blossomed to 91.1kg. Lack of a patent diaphragm and being naturally big-boned – my two escape clauses to explain being overweight- didn’t really cut it as genuine reasons for my weight gain anymore. There’s neuroscience in this space. As a protective mechanism we tell ourselves that we aren’t as heavy as we really are and we also use cognitive filters to protect us from the harsh reality that being overweight comes with some heavy penalties in the longer term especially strokes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes. That said, you can only delude yourself for so long before reality finally cuts through.
I carry my weight in a couple of obvious areas – around my neck and around my belly. Shame my fat collection centre for my body isn’t around my shoulders and arms. A shame firstly because I’m a bit puny there. Having a large set of ‘guns’ is something to aspire to and if hidden beneath a shirt the fact that it’s flabby and lacking definition isn’t noticed. The real issue though is that these two areas of carrying your fat are the danger zones, especially the area around the waist known as visceral fat. Fat that gathers around the middle – particularly for men – has traditionally been passed off as ‘middle aged spread’ or a beer belly as though there is a sense of inevitability about it. Medical science tells us that it is particularly bad. Unlike fat under our skin (subcutaneous), visceral fat lies in and behind the abdominal cavity. Lurking there it:
- releases fatty acids and pro-inflammatory chemicals;
- Releases these chemicals rapidly into the liver due to proximity;
- Taints the blood causing problems in the liver including insulin resistance and steatosis, which is the abnormal retention of lipids within our cells
Medical science tells us that our girth measurement is key to our long-term health outcomes. Carrying excess weight around our middle is a concern because that is where some of our major organs are, including our liver, kidneys, pancreas and intestines. Having excess fat attached to these is bad news. So my fourth blog for Men’s Health Week, as you will have guessed, is about our waistlines. Armed with the knowledge that visceral fat is a major health risk, the next step towards improved health is doing something about it. This is where there are no short-cuts. Dieting and exercise are the keys to reducing overall weight and in so doing eliminating your visceral fat. It isn’t quite that straightforward unfortunately. While diet and exercise are your choice and you will lose weight when you do this effectively, you don’t get to choose where your fat will be reduced. For me my weight comes off around my neck almost straight away but much slower is reducing my visceral fat.
Today, as part of Men’s Health Week we invited Body Plan to bring their ‘body bus’ to work to measure a range of physical attributes (Weight, BMI, visceral fat levels, resting metabolic rate etc). Despite now hitting the scales at a more modest 74kg (yes over 17kg lost in 5 months!!) my visceral fat levels are still above the recommended level. I am now looking to focus my exercise regimen much more around my waist to see whether this stubborn fat can be burnt off. While not guaranteed it may be helpful to undertake the following to get your/my visceral fat level under control:
- Cut out all trans fats from your/my diet because studies show that they store preferentially as visceral fat (foods like donuts, cookies, biscuits, muffins and cakes – all the good stuff right!);
- Drink less alcohol – it is a beer gut after all but a better way to describe it may be an alcohol gut;
- Do resistance training;
- Do high intensity interval training (HIIT)
- Reduce stress because it produces cortisol which skews your fat towards the abdomen
- Maintain good sleep hygiene which just means get adequate hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep. Less than 5 and more than 8 and your stomach will start to protrude!
While I’m not there yet, there is good news. Once I do have a visceral fat level that no longer constitutes a danger, I get to choose thereafter where my fat may accumulate if and when it starts to go back on. Visceral fat accumulates very quickly from two key things – sugar rich foods and alcohol. If these two visceral fat enablers are kept within reasonable limits it should be possible to maintain a healthy waistline going forward. Little did I realise all those years ago that getting wasted meant I was getting waisted! Now I know better my gut and health will thank me for it.