By Shoshana Pritzker
We’ve all heard reminders of the extreme health dangers of belly fat and how unfit some people are carrying it. Perhaps your doctor has recited the long list of medical problems you potentially face if you let the fat stay on your belly – or worse – allow it to get bigger. Women tend to accumulate fat in their hips, thighs, butt and tummy. The fat distributed in the lower body creates what we know as a “pear shape,” whereas fat predominantly stored in the belly creates an “apple shape” and is associated with greater health risks. What’s the solution to banish belly fat? Extreme dieting and bulimic workouts are out of the question! Besides regular exercise, increase the fiber content of your diet.
BMI and Health Risks
More and more studies are being published touting the negative implications found in people carrying fatty deposits specifically in the abdomen. Even those people who appear as being of “normal” weight may be at risk, depending upon their body mass index [BMI] – a measure of how much body fat you carry, based on your height and weight. In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at a large group of people and found that having a large waist nearly doubles your risk of death at an early age.
Another study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found similar results. Their study suggests that men and women with the biggest waistlines have twice the risk of dying over a decade, compared with those with the smallest tummies. Now that’s a no-brainer, but seriously, we need to get real. All of these studies tell us how unhealthy it is to be overweight and that our risk of death is so much greater, but our risk of cancer, diabetes and countless other health problems is enormous as well with a big belly.
Subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin) is what most people are referring to when they say they’re fat or overweight. It’s what you can visibly see and where cellulite resides. Visceral fat (fat mostly stored inside the abdominal cavity) is far more damaging to your body because it can wrap around the heart and internal organs. Don’t get me wrong – subcutaneous fat causes many problems of its own, but the stuff clogging your arteries may kill you sooner. It’s this type of fat that is associated with a greater risk of heart attack.
Even worse is when your belly fat is hard – aka “beer belly.” This type of fat is associated with alcohol use and contains high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is associated with inflammation and is a marker for heart disease. On top of that, high levels of belly fat are associated with an increased risk of cancer, dementia, lung problems, diabetes and migraines.
Improve Your Health, Feel Better
Tightening your waistline will not only improve your health, but will also make you feel better about yourself, which ultimately will lead to you being a much happier you. And happy people attract positive reactions. For women, your waist-to-hip ratio should be 0.7 – anything higher is a marker for many of the above-listed health concerns. To find your waist-to-hip ratio, measure the smallest circumference of your natural waist, usually just above the belly button. Divide that number by the measurement of the widest part of your hips and butt.
There are a number of ways to decrease belly fat, diet and exercise of course being the most influential in regard to the amount of body fat and abdominal fat you carry. However, studies are finding that increased fiber consumption is a plausible avenue to reducing fat mass. The current RDI (recommended dietary intake) of fiber for women is 25-35 grams of fiber per day. To date, there haven’t been many studies looking in to the amount of fiber consumed in relation to weight loss. Finally, scientists are giving more fiber a chance.
Fiber and Weight Loss
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists found that increases in dietary fiber by about 6-10 grams per day was associated with decreases in visceral adipose tissue (VAT) independent of other factors. Alternately, participants who had decreased total dietary fiber had significant increases in VAT. These participants were consuming about 6 grams below average-recommended fiber consumption. In this study, no other variables were related to changes in body fat or metabolic changes.
Another study published in the Journal of Nutrition was conducted to determine whether changes in fiber intake influence the risk of gaining weight and body fat over time. A prospective cohort design was used and 252 women completed baseline and follow-up assessments 20 months apart. Across the 20 months, almost all of the women gained weight and fat. For each 1-gram increase in total fiber consumed, however, weight decreased by 0.25 kg and fat decreased by 0.25 percentage points. Both soluble and insoluble fiber was compared with no significant differences in results. This study concluded that increasing dietary fiber significantly reduces the risk of gaining weight and fat in women.
Fiber’s influence on weight reduction or prevention of weight gain may very well occur through reducing calorie intake over time, because fiber makes you feel full quickly. However, that conclusion is not set in stone. Either way, adding more food to your diet is certainly not a bad thing if it consists of fibrous foods. Making room for more fiber in your diet is as simple as adding another 6 grams of fiber or one serving of beans or whole grains to your daily meal plan. That’s not an unrealistic goal for anyone.
Try incorporating more fiber into your diet. You will have to take a serious look at food labels. Picking up a loaf of bread because it says “whole wheat” on the package is not enough. And just because it’s brown doesn’t mean it’s healthy and loaded up with more fiber. What you should do instead is look at the nutrition facts label to see how many grams of fiber per serving the food actually contains. Your goal is more along the lines of 35-40 grams of fiber per day – split between five meals – that would allow for 6-8 grams of fiber per meal. Most fruits and vegetables contain around 3-7 grams of fiber per serving. Again, this is as simple as adding an apple to your mid-afternoon snack or some berries to your morning oatmeal.
5 Quick Tips: Choosing High-Fiber Foods
1. Go with whole fruit instead of juice. Whole fruits and vegetables are packed with much more fiber and far fewer calories than their liquid counterparts.
2. Add fruit to your oats. It’s easy to add more fiber, liven up your hot or cold cereal with a handful of berries or sliced apples every day.
3. Read labels for total fiber per serving. Just because a food is brown or reads “whole grain” doesn’t mean it’s packed with good-for-you fiber. Check labels for the amount of fiber per serving the food actually contains.
4. Eat more beans. Beans and legumes are healthy carbohydrate sources that are loaded with fiber. Top your brown rice with beans or make some salsa with black beans to top on your whole-wheat tortilla breakfast burrito.
5. Create your own recipes. Use high-fiber alternatives in some of your favorite recipes for an added fiber boost. Or try a new recipe – you may just like it!
1. Davis JN et al., Inverse relation between dietary fiber intake and visceral adiposity in overweight Latino Youth. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009;90(5):1160-6.
2. Huaidong Du et al. Dietary fiber and subsequent changes in body weight and waist circumference in European men and women. Am J Clin Nutr, 2010;91:329-36.
3. Larry AT et al. Increasing total fiber intake reduces risk of weight and fat gain in women. J Nutr, 2009;139:576-581.