When it comes down to it – your wellbeing may actually be about apples and pears. However unlike the old adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, this kind of fruit may have the opposite effect.
Next time a friend asks, “does my bum look big in this?” tell her not to worry. A lard arse or saddlebag thighs don’t pose any health risks. But when it comes to beer bellies and muffin tops it’s a whole different ball game. Medical research now shows that abdominal fat (storing excess fat on your belly) is a reliable predictor than your weight or total body fat in having an increased risk of series health conditions such as heart disease, type two diabetes and even dementia.
What’s the problem with focusing on weight alone
The weight loss business is a multi-million dollar industry. As mainstream media is a vehicle to package advertising, it is no coincidence that a disproportionate amount of column inches in women’s magazines are devoted to pictures and stories about celebrities putting on or loosing weight. Lifestyle and current affairs television programs also focus on weight more than actual wellbeing.
While carrying too much fat everywhere, including on the abdomen, can lead to serious obesity-related health issues, the focus on weight or body mass index (BMI) alone is often misleading. One of the biggest problems is that muscle weighs more than fat, meaning a fit person can be misclassified as overweight of even obese – George Clooney and Tom Cruise buffed up for a movie tip the scales to the latter according to this example.
It is also possible to have a healthy diet in the wrong ratio to your energy expenditure and for your body to wave a red flag by way of increased belly fat. For instance, eating larger portions of food in conjunction with a sedentary lifestyle, means no matter how good the quality of the fuel, there is excess to requirements. In this case it is not the diet that is truly to blame, it’s the time spent being a couch potato and not moving enough that can result in an unhealthy distribution of body fat. Conversely it is common to see people with an unhealthy diet, often high in saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and alcohol, which weight-wise is compensated by increased exercise. While overall weight may be within an acceptable “healthy” range, the inappropriate food choices may lead to a thicker waist with all the associated long-term risks.
How to measure your risk
Weight alone is of little use accurately assessing these specific risks, so forget the scales and grab a tape measure (from a shop selling fabric and dressmaking supplies, rather than a hardware store). With no clothing hampering your measurement, place the tape measure horizontally around your waist. This is about half way between the top of your hipbones and your bottom rib (roughly this should be around your belly button). Breath out normally and don’t compress your skin with the tape measure.
Ideally your reading should be no more than 80 cm for women and 94 cm for men. It is generally agreed that a waist circumference of over 110 cm (women) and 120 cm (men) puts individuals at extremely high danger for obesity-related health risks. However this information is based on Caucasian men and women. According to official sources, there are a few racial variations. The Health Department suggests that these measurements are lower for Asian and Aboriginal men and a little higher for Pacific and Torres Strait Islander males. More research is needed to define the exact measurements but regardless of ethnicity, a beer belly or muffin top is a reliable health risk factor.
For further information check out the government sponsored Measure Up website.
Regardless of how you measure your progress, don’t get obsessive about it. Whisking out the tape measure more than once a week is unnecessary, so set a regular day to record your waist dimension. If you feel compelled to do it more often, then consider getting some psychological health. Remember the main point of “waist loss” is about health, not appearance. Maintaining healthy self-esteem is of equal importance.
On that note I find it concerning that nowhere was noted a minimum waist circumference for good health. Eating disorders are prevalent and carry equal concern regarding health risks, from osteoporosis and malnutrition, through to death. This is a serious mental health issue that goes beyond the issues of lifestyle covered in this article. For resources and support contact the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria.
The problem with men
Rates of overweight and obesity are higher among Australian men (66 percent) than women (47percent. In addition, men are less concerned about their weight, less likely to attend commercial weight loss programs and less likely to be included in weight loss trials.
Department of Health, Promoting Healthy Weight
While women are traditionally weight and size-focused, studies prove that men are at a greater risk of fat related health problems. Changing the issue from “weight loss” to “waist loss” has resulted in successful campaigns such as Gut Busters, helping men reduce their lifestyle related health risks by swapping the scales for the tape measure.
I find the centimetre versus kilogram approach works equally as well for women as well. Giving up the scales can be liberating. Refocusing on an overall lifestyle change, not just fixating on diet or over compensating with exercise is the key for good health.
How to reduce your belly fat
Managing body shape is not rocket science but it does require some effort. There is no wonder diet, magic natural supplement or special tricks. It all comes down to managing energy in (food/drink) with energy out (movement). While genetics, hormones and pre-existing health conditions can play a small role, in most cases the muffin top is about the energy in/out equation rather than DNA or a malfunctioning.
The only problem with the “balance” approach is the lack of miracles. Many of the weight loss industry tricks are centred on a short-term drop on the scales, such as restricting kilojoule intake or fluid loss through diuretics (including natural sources such as guarana). Beware of some “detox” regimes, which are really crash diets parading as a health kick.
Portion controlling what we eat can help, although it doesn’t address the emotional reasons why we fail to listen to our body and end up over eating. Weight loss programs based on home delivery of kilojoule controlled meals may assist in understanding portions but often the choices are far from healthy – featuring little or no actual fresh fruit and vegetables and supplying no education in healthy shopping or cooking.
Waist loss works best when it is a three-pronged approach – an appropriate diet balanced with at least 40 minutes of dedicated movement a day and some mental flexibility.
Simple tips to help you loose extra centimetres
Food is about quality versus quantity
Mindful eating: whatever you eat, do it mindfully. Always sit down to eat, chew slowly and savour your food. (More about mindful eating).
Understand portions: While animal protein (eg: meat, dairy) helps make you feel full, most carnivores eat too much of it. A standard serve of meat is the size of the palm of your hand. Try some lean beef or kangaroo, sliced thinly and stir fried in no more than 4 teaspoons of vegetable oil with masses of fresh vegetables without any rice or noodles.
Include a couple of serves of complex carbohydrates: Carbs get a bad rap. When it comes to refined foods, such as those that are made from flour and sugar, that are low in nutrient this may be justifiable. But not all carbohydrates are equal. Denser, unrefined plant foods such are beans, legumes, whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, millet, buckwheat etc) and raw nuts and seeds help stave off sugar cravings.
Snack on vegetables: Vegetables that can be eaten raw, like carrots, celery, peas and even shredded cabbage, provide vitamins, minerals, water and fibre without threatening your waistline. You do not need to portion control uncooked vegetables; however remember to include lean protein and complex carbohydrates in your diet as well.
Find new ways to move your body
Here in lies the rub. You can eat too much of a healthy diet (and don’t we just love the idea of “antioxidant rich” dark chocolate) if it is not matched with an appropriate amount of movement. Remember, it is a two sided equation of energy in and energy out.
Do a minimum of 40 minutes exercise every day. This can be broken into shorter bites and doesn’t necessarily have to be achieved in a gym class. It can include fast walking, incidental exercise such as walking up and down the stairs instead of using the lift or escalator, short bursts of jumping rope (skipping), bike rides and turning up the music and dancing around your living room. There are fun classes, such as go go dancing, in venues not associated usually with exercise (such as the pub!). And when it comes to other fun ways of burning of excess fuel, lets not forget sex!
If you need a fitness ‘mindfulness aid” consider getting a fitness activity tracker.
Musculo-skeletal problems and movement
Most of us have sprained an ankle or pulled a muscle at some time and taking a short break from regular exercise can be a legitimate part of your recovery. However chronic structural problems will become progressively worse with the wrong kind of exercise and without the right type of regular movement. On top of this back, knee and ankle issues generally get worse carrying the weight of excess fat. A clinical pilates class (one on one, with individualised treatment) is a safe way to work with your weaknesses and exercise appropriately. It might also be useful to see an osteopath to help with any ongoing problems with your muscles or joints.
Some exercise programs that work
Need more motivation to get moving? Buy a fitness activity tracker tracker and start counting your steps. It’s all about making 10,000 steps everyday your baseline activity. If you want to get up and running, look at the Couch to 5 K proram.
Also check out these tips on walking for fitness.