Here’s a secret: The only way to lose belly fat, and keep it off, is to improve the balance of your hormones
Belly fat is easily burned, but cutting calories won’t help you lose it. Belly fat is stored deep inside the body surrounding the organs. It lurks behind your abs, and when you get a lot of it, you develop a paunch or beer belly.
Belly fat is not technically the fat you pinch that’s covering up your abs - that’s called subcutaneous fat. The thing is that you’re more likely to develop ’love handles’ and flabby abs if you have a lot of belly fat, because both are influenced by hormone imbalances.
Belly fat is more easily burned than subcutaneous fat because it’s very responsive to the catecholamine adrenaline hormones. However, hormones are tricky because they must be balanced. When insulin, cortisol, and other hormones become unbalanced, it’s impossible to burn belly fat.
How to make it happen: Avoid low-calorie dieting. Even for people with perfectly balanced hormones, a strict calorie approach to fat loss is a less than stellar choice because it ignores how your body responds to different kinds of foods.
In addition, for people who suffer a bit of extra stress or have anxiety about their weight, a calorie approach will worsen existing hormonal problems and further elevate cortisol.
The sustainable solution is to repair your hormone balance. This is completely doable, but it takes effort, focus, and perseverance. The rest of this article will give you specific actions for making it happen.
Hormones behave differently depending on the environment they are in. When hormone levels are in balance, cortisol is protective and burns fat. If you start working out, cortisol, and energising hormones, like the growth hormone, are released in order to free fat stores so the body can burn them for energy.
Insulin, a storage hormone, will be lower at this time. This is the perfect fat burning environment because when cortisol is elevated, but insulin low, a fat burning enzyme called hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) will increase. A fat storing enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) will be blocked.
However, there are various ways this fat burning environment can get disrupted. For example, if you eat a high-carb food or drink a sugar filled ’energy’ drink before working out, you’ll spike insulin, blocking your fat burning ability.
Or, if you tend to plan your meals around carbohydrates and other foods that generate high insulin release, as most people in this high-carb culture do, you’ll have the perfect belly fat storing environment. Insulin will be elevated most of the day, and LPL, the fat storing enzyme will be active, whereas HSL will be reduced.
How to fix it: Start lifting weights because this type of exercise requires the muscles to become more sensitive to insulin. In addition, strength training resets the part of the brain that is involved in releasing hormones so that cortisol balance improves.
Also, avoid refined and high-sugar carbs pre-workout so that insulin is low. Unless you’re an athlete, you don’t need to worry about pre-workout nutrition assuming you have a fairly normal eating pattern. Just eat at normal times and focus on protein-based, lower carb meals.
A simple way to balance hormones is by taking control of what you put in your mouth. Fasting and very low-carb eating have been found to have beneficial metabolic effects in certain situations because they improve the body’s ability to burn fat and carbs and can reduce inflammation.
But both are stressful and any time you don’t eat, cortisol is elevated to provide energy by converting amino acids from the muscles into glucose to provide the body and brain with energy. When you have an elevated cortisol curve and experience this frequently, your body thinks it needs to store belly fat so that it will have easily accessible energy in anticipation of more intense stress.
Another result of not eating is that insulin is elevated when cortisol raises blood sugar. Every so often, this is not a problem. When it happens day after day your cells become less receptive to insulin, which means they aren’t getting the energy needed.
How to fix it: Identify an eating pattern that allows you to avoid getting hungry or having intense cravings because both indicate that cortisol is increasing. People who are new to healthy eating often benefit from 4 to 5 protein-based meals a day to prevent insulin spikes and avoid unnecessarily elevating cortisol.
High cortisol literally makes you unable to make rationale food choices. High cortisol activates a part of the brain that makes you crave pleasurable foods, but goal-oriented parts of the brain are reduced.
So, you’re never going to want steak and Brussels sprouts, but you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for a bagel, cake, or other high-carb delight when you’re stressed. Giving in and eating your high-carb delight of choice won’t solve the problem because then you’ll spike insulin and consume a ton of calories that will be quickly be converted to belly fat.
Once insulin resistance develops, the hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin, also get out of whack. Your brain becomes resistant to the STOP EATING message and you won’t feel in control of your food intake.
How to fix it: Eliminate all processed, high-sugar junk foods. Plan every meal around a whole protein (meat, fish, eggs, beans, or dairy), some good fat, and a vegetable or fruit.
Avoid stress eating by making a plan for how you’ll cope with stressful times and what you’ll eat. This approach works. A recent study found that among a population of stressed out kids who had high cortisol, those who had better coping skills and didn’t turn to sweets when under stress had less belly fat. Kids who coped by eating had worse body composition and bigger waistlines.
High cortisol alters circadian rhythms and disrupts other hormones. A lot of times we can’t sleep because we’re stressed, but trouble sleeping is equally stressful. It’s a vicious cycle of stress hormones altering your natural, protective hormone cascade.
Here’s how it works: When cortisol stays elevated all day long, release of the sleep hormone, melatonin is reduced. Without melatonin, you’ll never be able to sleep soundly. Insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance drop. Growth hormone, which is released during deep sleep, is absent. Testosterone and estrogen levels are reduced, inhibiting recovery from exercise and slowing your metabolism.
Further, low testosterone means motivation to work out and be physically active drops and you’ll burn fewer calories over the course of the day. But, food cravings will increase and you’ll feel hungry.
How to fix it: You must start sleeping in order to start bringing cortisol back into balance. First, do the little things that promote sleep:
High-quality protein is the most important food for losing belly fat. The most consistent indicator of leanness around the waist is a high-quality protein intake, which is defined as foods that contain a ’threshold’ amount of 10 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs).
For example, a large study of young volunteers found that those who ate the 10-gram threshold dose of EAAs at every meal had the least belly fat, and the number of times they reached the EAA threshold was also significant.
How to use it: Eat animal-derived protein - beef, fish, poultry, milk, and eggs - at every meal. You get more bang for your calorie buck by eating these foods.
Use lower quality protein sources, such beans, lentils, and some vegetables as sides and condiments. There are many benefits to plant proteins, but if you get most of your protein from lower quality sources you have to eat more calories to get the same overall EAA intake.
Certain fats help you lose belly fat by improving insulin sensitivity. Certain fats such as the essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in fish have been found to help people lose belly fat.
Fish oil improves insulin sensitivity because it gets incorporated into the lipid (fat) layer that protects cells. This allows the cellular receptors to bind more easily to insulin so that the body burns glucose for energy more efficiently.
Lower cortisol is another benefit of foods high in EFAs. A 2011 study found that adults who took fish oil for six weeks increased lean muscle mass and reduced body fat, and they weren’t even exercising. Researchers believe that reductions in stress were responsible for the improvement in body composition.
How to use it: Eat fish frequently to get the protective EFAs into your diet. Balance the amount of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) with omega-6 fats that come from vegetable oils. For most people this requires them to reduce the omega-6 fats in their diet because the Western diet is packed with this type of fat.
Fixing your gut can help you lose belly fat. You’ve surely heard about the power your gut has over your health and body composition. In fact, research shows that by supporting the growth of anti-inflammatory gut bacteria with probiotics you can shrink your waist.
For example, in a Japanese study, drinking fermented milk containing probiotic bacteria for four weeks led to a decrease in belly fat of 8.2 percent. Body fat percentage and waist to hip circumference were also slightly reduced at the end of the study.
Researchers believe probiotic foods help people lose belly fat by improving metabolism and raising an anti-inflammatory signal called adiponectin that improves the body’s ability to burn belly fat.
How to use it: Eat a probiotic food every day. Foods that have been fermented contain probiotics, such as high-quality yogurt, sauerkraut, Korean kim chi, kefir, miso, kombucha tea, and fermented vegetables. Add them to food as a condiment or enjoy them as a snack.
Optimising your carb intake will help you lose belly fat. Eating less of certain kinds of carbs is a useful trick for losing belly fat. But low-carb eating done wrong causes more trouble than it’s worth for the following reasons:
Here are strategies for removing problematic carbs from your diet: Avoid all refined grains, such as bread, cookies, crackers, and the majority of processed foods since almost all of these foods contain at least a little bit of wheat, corn, soy, or rice as filler.
Radically reduce your intake of starches. The average Westerner gets 50 percent of their calories from rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes, which is one reason that diabetes and obesity are skyrocketing. Our digestive systems are simply not able to cope effectively with so much sugar so fast.
Eliminate all liquid carbs, especially ’recovery’ drinks. This means sports drinks, soda, all fruit juice, and anything with added sugar such as coffee or tea.
Eliminate beer and avoid alcohol. In a large-scale European study of more than 250,000 people, men who had just one alcoholic drink a day had more belly fat, and those who drank beer rather than wine had substantially more belly fat.
Here are principles for optimising carb intake: Eat carbs after working out because this can help lower cortisol. In addition, your metabolism will be elevated and the body will use carbs to replenish muscle glycogen instead of storing them as fat.
Avoid refined and high-glycemic carbs for breakfast and pre-workout because the increase in insulin will shift the body away from burning fat. It also reduces energy levels and motivation.
Replace grains with veggies. Use leafy greens instead of bread. Try making “pasta” noodles out of winter squash or the inside of spaghetti squash. Substitute cauliflower for rice. Turn to blueberries and strawberries instead of cookies.
Eat plenty of fibrous carbs, especially green vegetables and dark-colored fruits. These foods are nutrient-rich, low in calories, and very filling. They’re also fairly easy to digest and don’t cause the same array of immune problems as grains.