Abdominal Fat

Potentially, the question “how do I get rid of my tummy” may be one of the questions a health and fitness professional is asked the most. Middle-age spread seems to hit most men at some time, while women increasingly become aware of both their gender’s impact on where body fat increasingly likes to hangout. And while the flabby bits we can grab might look unsightly to some and feel uncomfortable, it’s actually the deeper visceral fat that is of main concern. We know that such fat deposited around the abdominal area is associated with a number of health conditions. So let’s get the low down on abdominal fat, and get to grips with the issues and what can be done to improve health outcomes. Cadence Health and Nutrition Courses Director and nutritionist Leanne Cooper takes a look at the nutritional facts.

Fat physiology 101

An average human adult will store roughly 15 kilograms of fat in their body fat cells (adipocytes). The human body generally contains between 30 and 50 million adipocytes and each one of these cells can contain up to 90% of its total composition as fat. Other than their enormous capacity to store fat, fat cells are the same as most other body cells.

We generally develop our adipocytes at specific times such as during infancy, adolescence and as a consequence of increased body fat. In fact it may be that incorrect eating habits and lifestyle during these crucial times (1-2 years of age and 12-14 years of age) may lead to greater than average fat cell generation. When the body is unable to utilise the intake of dietary fat, the excess is stored in fat cells. Fat cells under normal circumstances do not increase in number, rather it’s the amount of fat inside each fat cell that increases. Yes, that’s right we are stuck with them.

Lipocytes have a degree of control

Lipocytes are able to communicate with our liver, brain, pancreas and other organs through the secretion of a number of hormones and compounds (including inflammatory compounds); that is why they are now believed to be endocrine glands in themselves.

Location of body fat stores

Body fat can be found in:

  • Subcutaneous areas of the body under the skin, i.e. the abdominal area, arms, neck etc. (major sites of fat in the body); and
  • Deep areas such as around the heart and liver (visceral or organ fat).

The abdomen is the greatest area of fat cell size and numbers in men and, to the dismay of most women, it’s the buttocks and glut areas for females. Studies show that men gather more visceral fat, and women more subcutaneous fat (with a higher percentage of body fat generally).

Check it out!

Waist circumference (WC)

Increased waist circumference has been shown to be a great predictor of a number of diseases. It’s important to keep in mind that measures have not been developed for waist circumference in childhood, and that currently measures are culturally biased towards Caucasians.

Risk of chronic disease is increased when WC is more than 94 cm for men and 80cm for women; it is greatly increased when it is more than 102 and 88 cm respectively.

Useful website: Check your waist circumference

The Measure Up website by the Australian Government is an excellent resource for yourself and clients. Check it out.

Nitty gritty

Subcutaneous abdominal fat (SAF)

“Sub” meaning below and “cutaneous” meaning skin, “subcutaneous” refers to fat below the skin. Subcutaneous fat is found between the skin and the abdominal wall. While SAF is less of a threat to health, it’s thought to be more difficult to shift for a number of reasons. Sob?

Visceral adipose tissue (VAT)

Enter the “bad guy”! VAT is found behind the abdominal cavity around surrounding abdominal organs such as the liver. Research suggests that it is this fat that correlates to a number of health conditions, including coronary heart disease and Type II diabetes. There is also a stronger association between visceral fat and blood triglycerides, blood pressure, cholesterol and total body fat.

Fat, food and body

So what happens when you eat a fatty meal, or any meal for that? Let’s take a brief look at the chain of events.

  1. Prior to a meal blood sugars are low; insulin is also low.
  2. This condition allows small fats (fatty acids) to leave fat cells and enter the blood, then enter the muscle cells where fat can then be used as energy. We all like the sound of that!
  3. However, when blood insulin levels are high (most commonly after a meal that is rich in sugars), fatty acids are unable to exit fat cells which sends fatty acids packing, but back into fat cells.
  4. But wait there is more, insulin (known as our fat hormone for good reason) switches our body into storing fat in cells and preventing the release of fat into the blood.

So how can we get this stuff moving?

Well as much as we all want to believe if we do hundreds of crunchies we will lose our tummy, this just isn’t going to happen. Current research doesn’t support the proposal that body fat can be preferentially lost from specified areas, regardless of the activity. However, it is possible that certain exercise conditions may improve weight loss and the maintenance of a healthy body weight. Yeah, some good news!

Research suggest high intensity exercise may well be useful in creating positive changes in body composition as it can significantly reduced body weight, percentage of body fat, fat mass and waist circumference. Also, aerobic exercise in particular seems most effective at reducing body fat and also abdominal body fat in the overweight and obese and while resistance training with weights may not be as effective it has still shown to have other positive health effects.

Logic and physiology suggests that simply reducing the level of fat we consume will begin to prevent continual or increasing amounts of fuel to store (we also need to watch too much sugar because it causes insulin to be released). Also, we know that we are able to reduce energy intake far more easily than we can increase the expenditure of it. To burn fuel in the body is a process that is very complex and not a speedy one. Cutting back on the other hand is very easily done. Then adding in even a slight increase in energy expenditure can make a substantial difference. Girls, watch the alcohol it has almost as much energy as fat and because it is a sugar causes the release of insulin, yes that pesky fat storage hormone! Alcohol is not our friend!

Something to think about

Animal studies have shown that green tea compounds, specifically catechins, have an anti-obesity effect by increasing fat burning. Other studies have shown that green tea extracts increase energy expenditure. Something to think about when you decide on your next type of tea you drink. But remember green and white tea have more tannin which can cause a loss of fluid from the body.

In summary

It’s only in conjunction with appropriate exercise and diet that improvements can be made and as a consequence of improved health markers first and foremost. Eating less may not necessarily be the only answer, nor is high intensity, high volume workouts, rather:

  1. The consumption of a healthy diet rich in nutrients and health giving compounds and providing a healthy amount of energy along with;
  2. Moving more; and,
  3. Exercise that can be sustained without risk, enjoyed and maintained over a long period of time is our best management solution.

Eat well, laugh hard, enjoy life!

Leanne Cooper
Director, Cadence Health