The mysteries of belly fat

Health professionals are concerned about belly fat because it can trigger: heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, fatty liver, liver cancer, stress, depression and Alzheimer's.

Scientists believe that it is the fat below the surface, called visceral fat, that really does the damage by producing hormones and chemicals that can cause heart disease and more.

Also, evidence shows that deep-seated fat near an important vein that leads to the liver can transport fatty acids to the organ. The result: high blood lipid readings.

How do you know when the size of your stomach is putting you in peril? A general guideline is that woman with a waist of more than 35 inches, and a man over 40 inches, could be at more risk. As we age, most people struggle with weight. This is because metabolism slows down causing lean muscle mass to be lost, therefore burning fewer calories.

But there's more:

Typically, women face the menopause phase of their lives sometime between the ages of 45 and 55. It is a profound change where a women's body produces less estrogen and progesterone.

One of the results of this can be weight gain, which tends to be around the middle rather than the hips. This shift can begin even before, in the period called perimenopause.

Some research indicates that the stress hormone, cortisol, is involved in both overeating and belly fat. When we are stressed, our instinct is to avoid eating. In response, our body shuts down all non-essential functioning to help us focus on the danger. Once that danger is over, many react by eating sugary foods.

Some researchers believe that cortisol triggers the release of a neurotransmitter that stimulates your appetite for such calorie-rich foods.

In addition, cortisol affects another hormone, leptin, which lets you know when you are full. The result: overeating.

It may also be cortisol that causes your body to store extra calories as visceral fat.

Studies suggest that belly fat may be a genetic issue in postmenopausal women, while other studies suggest that we all carry genes that determine if weight will be an issue.

Germs and viruses
A study by microbiologists at Washington University in St. Louis tested two groups of mice. One group was kept germ free and fed more than the other group. The result: skinnier mice, 50 percent less body fat than the others.

But then researchers exposed them to typical bacteria. In two weeks, their fat stores soared by 60 percent, and they became insulin resistant.

In another study, University of Wisconsin researchers found evidence that a human adenovirus can cause chickens to get fat, sending scientists off to identify viruses that can do the same thing with people.

The American Heart Association recommends that women limit sugar consumption to 100 calories a day. For men, it's 150 calories. It is also important to get checked for diabetes. Trusted health screening services like Life Line Screening or your doctor can help you detect your risk.

Here's a partial list of foods that are better for controlling belly fat/weight: Whole grains, beans, fish, green vegetables, nuts and berries. However, remember that controlling portion size is also key to trimming weight.

On paper, losing belly fat is simple: Reduce caloric intake and burn more calories through exercise. What types of exercise? Here's a partial list that can help:

* Walk or run 30 to 90 minutes daily.
* Strength training with light weights once a week or more.
* Toning exercises.

Body toning and core strength
For a structured way to improve your core strength try Pilates. Some Pilates routines can work all of your "powerhouse" muscles - your core. Other physical practices that can help are Yoga and Tai Chi. These along with a good diet and aerobic exercise (an hour a day) can help.

Remember, behavioral modifications, such as exercise, diet, and stress management, go a long way in controlling belly fat and preventing diabetes, heart disease and more.

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