Beer belly. Gut. Potbelly. Muffin top.
In spite of the humorous terms Canadians use to describe excess abdominal fat, the phenomenon can be deadly -- even for so-called skinny people who have trouble keeping their waistlines in check.
"(Belly fat) really creates what I call havoc in the body," says registered dietitian Liz Pearson.
The Toronto-based nutrition author recently visited Winnipeg to talk about the dangers of abdominal girth -- even for people with normal body mass indexes (BMIs).
The purpose of Pearson's multi-city media tour -- paid for by Catelli -- was to promote the pasta-maker's whole grain products. Nevertheless, the diet expert's message about belly fat still served as an eye-opening reminder of the dangers of something our culture takes for granted.
"(Abdominal fat) changes the way your body handles fat. It changes the way your body handles sugars, so you become more resistant to insulin, so you need more insulin to get the job done, so to speak. It creates almost a low-grade inflammatory environment in the body.
"While we know that inflammation is important to heal a wound, having chronic inflammation throughout your body is like putting fuel on the fire for disease."
Pearson cites a new Mayo Clinic study of nearly 13,000 people that found those with normal BMIs but high waist-to-hip ratios (an indicator of abdominal obesity) were 2.75 times more likely to die of heart disease than their counterparts with lesser tummies.
What's the big deal about fat on the belly versus fat elsewhere? Belly fat, says Pearson, releases hormones that affect metabolism. For example, insulin, an essential hormone that transforms carbohydrates into energy, also increases belly fat when released in excess. To take it even further, insulin-production problems can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Belly fat can also surround the organs in a way that other fat doesn't.
So how do you know if your belly fat is the life-threatening, organ-permeating kind (visceral fat) or merely an esthetic annoyance (subcutaneous fat)?
Pearson says it's a good idea to follow Health Canada's guidelines about healthy waist measurements. (A man should have a waist circumference of no more than 40 inches, while a woman's waist should measure no more than 35 inches, says the federal agency.)
But just as body weight doesn't tell the whole health story, neither does waist size.
"There's more that you can do. You can get radiographic imaging. You can calculate waist-to-hip ratio.
"But for the most part, we can just use our eyes," says Pearson.
The mother of two wishes more physicians would use their eyes -- and their measuring tapes -- during routine exams.
"Doctors aren't even telling their patients they are overweight half the time. And that's only because they have such a limited amount of time," she says.
"Some are talking about it but lots are not. (Measuring patients' waists) would give (doctors) one more measure of health that is very easy and simple to do."
Meanwhile, Pearson -- author of three books, with her fourth, Broccoli, Love and Dark Chocolate, set for publication next year -- says diet is one of the most efficient ways to help battle the stomach bulge (along with exercise).
According to the product spokeswoman, here are the best foods to combat a fat belly:
Pearson promotes Canada's Food Guide recommendations of six to eight servings of grains daily for adults. Pearson says every serving should be whole grains because studies show that whole grains keep people full longer. That means they eat less and thereby are less prone to belly fat. Also, the nutrients in whole grains are good for the body.
What about the health experts/carbo-phobes who claim eight servings of whole grains is too much and inflicts dreaded excess insulin production?
"I think serving size is really important here. Six servings of whole grains per day is very reasonable," she says, noting that a cup-and-a-half of pasta constitutes three servings of grains.
Pearson sites a study out of North Carolina's Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that found for every 10 grams of soluble fibre eaten in a day, belly fat decreased by 3.7 per cent over five years. When researchers added moderate activity to the equation, belly fat decreased by 7.4 per cent over the same period. (Soluble fibre comes from foods such as beans, vegetables and fruit, though Pearson says all fibre is great for health.) Keep in mind that adults should get at least 35 grams of fibre daily. Kids between the ages of one and three need 19 grams of fibre daily, according to Health Canada).
These potent plant-based chemicals prevent the cells from oxidizing. And research, mostly on animals, has found they reduce inflammation and even fight belly fat, says Pearson. Find antioxidants in bright-coloured fruits and vegetables, tea and in dark chocolate. (Pearson recommends consuming at least seven to 10 servings of flavonoid-rich produce daily. She also likes gets a big dose of flavonoids for breakfast. "I make a huge pot of green tea every morning. In my tea, I put thinly sliced, freshly sliced ginger, three cinnamon sticks and whole cloves," she says, noting the spices she adds are also known to fight fat.
Like the spices Pearson adds to tea, pepper compounds also fight belly fat, she says. She recommends adding pepper -- jalepe±os, black pepper and chili flakes -- to food regularly.
For more information about Liz Pearson, visit her website at www.lizpearson.com.
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