“I use the treadmill and elliptical for an hour of workout 5 times a week. I’ve lost fat throughout and I feel great but it feels like they [don’t help much] with belly fat. What do I do?”Question posed to me on Quora
Here is a common type of question from people frustrated by their persistent belly fat. For this post, I will focus on the issue of fat, but in a future post, I might want to address the question as to whether cardio is the best way to deal with fat (spoiler: it’s not).
(A) Types of Fat
There are several categories of fats, but let’s talk about the two types that make up the vast majority of the visible fat on your body. Subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.
- Subcutaneous fat is stored as a layer immediately under your skin and covering your skeletal muscles and covers your entire body. The majority of the fat that you see on a human is subcutaneous fat.
- Visceral fat is fat that is inside your abdominal cavity and surrounds your internal organs. For the most part, visceral fat is not visible. Excess visceral fat is considered a significant health risk. More so than subcutaneous fat.
The belly area is unique in that it is the one place that visceral fat is visible. The belly area will have a combination of subcutaneous fat on top of the abdominal muscles and visceral fat behind the abdominal muscles.
Both can contribute to a protruding belly. But sometimes, people who lose a lot of subcutaneous fat that covers the entire body and look lean otherwise, still have a protruding belly due to visceral fat. Generally speaking, cardio like the treadmill and elliptical work is a good way to burn visceral fat as well as subcutaneous fat.
(B) Fat Gain vs Fat Loss.
Most people who carry too much fat focus almost exclusively on fat loss and see exercise as the solution. But fat has two sides to the equation. And how you gained the fat – your eating habits – is the more important side of the equation. If you don’t address that, then all your weight loss efforts will be in vain the moment you stop doing the exercises you were doing to lose the fat. Many now agree that body composition is determined 80% by what you eat and only 20% by exercise.
Indeed, if you need to choose between focussing on eating habits and focussing on exercise, then start with focussing on eating. Remember …
“You can’t outrun your fork”
(C) Downregulating Fat Gain.
So what contributes to fat storage? Well, it ain’t fat. Let’s get that persistent myth out of the way first. For decades, the food and fitness industry has been promoting low-fat diets and creating and marketing low-fat foods even as obesity rates continue to rise. Look to carbs for your fat gain culprit. Our modern diet is high in carbs and especially in refined grains and sugars. The metabolic pathways are too complex to cover in this brief, but a high carb diet will often lead to insulin resistance which in turn will lead to leptin resistance which in turn will lead to your body suttling excess carbs into fat storage while at the same time resisting attempts to harvest that fat for energy when needed. A double-edged sword that results in intractable fat loss even in the face of lots of cardio.
So let’s just cut to the chase and list some of the things that can be done to limit fat gain. This isn’t a comprehensive list and it is not intended to be prescriptive. Rather, choose those that make the most sense in terms of what you suspect is appropriate for your particular situation.
- Cut the Sugars.
The fastest energy pathway comes from sugar. And by far the biggest culprit to our modern obesity epidemic is the amount of sugar in our diets. Read labels on foods for sugar content. You’ll be surprised at what foods have sugar added.
Artificial sugars can be just as bad so cut those as well. (There are some exceptions, stevia for example.)
- Cut the Carbs.
In general, get those carbs down. Vegetables can be considered as “free” carbs since they generally won’t spike your insulin which is the primary culprit in the long-term fat gain problem.
- Switch to Eating Healthy Fats.
This a complex issue. But consider any of the vegetable oils as bad (canola, soybean, and such) and consider oils such as olive, avocado, coconut and such as healthy alternatives.
The chemical reactions in your body due to stress are a known contributor to fat gain. If you are under persistent high stress, it can sit in the middle and foil any other of your fat loss strategies. Get stress under control.
We’ve learned a lot about sleep in the last few years. The link between a chronic sleep deficit and fat gain is undisputed. (ref Matthew Walker MD).
There are many sources of inflammation and the topic is far too broad for this brief posting, but consider the air your breathe, the chemicals you handle, the food you eat, as potential sources. This is why organic foods that avoid pesticides are preferred, and non-hormone grass-fed meat and dairy.
- Intermittent Fasting.
I happen to be a fan of IF. But again, this is far too broad a topic to cover adequately in this brief. I will suggest that a constricted eating window will tend to get your body to switch from relying solely on a constant supply of carbs and to go after fat stores.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Just remember that you need to address fat gain first. And you should address it in a way that involves a life-long change of habits. Exercise then becomes an excellent component to your overall health and fitness, but an optional component to your overall body composition.
And there you have Gord’s version in a nutshell.