It’s not uncommon for men or women to carry a few extra kilos around their mid section. There are so many variables that may lead to gaining belly fat or the dreaded ‘love handles’ and those include metabolism, age, hormones, sleep quality, stress, genetics, inflammation and diet to name a few. As you can see, losing belly fat is not always just about cleaning up your diet, there can be other factors that may need to be taken care of in order for you to achieve your goal.
Below are some reasons why you might be holding onto abdominal fat
Hormone imbalance and other medical conditions
Your hormones play a pivotal part in every aspect of fat loss including your metabolism, where your body stores your fat, your appetite and even your cravings. Therefore if you are someone who has been trying to burn off stubborn belly fat but all of your efforts are not making much of a difference, odds are that your hormones may have something to do with it.
Excess abdominal fat can indicate one or more of the following hormonal imbalances:
- High Insulin (insulin resistance)-Insulin is a hormone that helps facilitate cellular uptake of glucose in the body, primarily in the muscles, liver, and adipose tissue where it is used as fuel, or stored as fat.When insulin resistance develops, the insulin response is impaired and glucose levels are no longer efficiently controlled. As a result, blood levels become elevated, causing the insulin-resistant individual to store stubborn abdominal fat and increase their risk of other chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- High Oestrogen– Men who have higher levels of abdominal fat are more likely to experience an increase in the conversion of testosterone into oestrogen. As oestrogen levels rise, so does the tendency to accumulate more abdominal fat. Similarly, women who are premenopausal and have high levels of estrogen (also known as estrogen dominance) are more likely have heightened PMS, too much body fat around the hips and struggle to lose fat.
- Low Testosterone– Testosterone levels decline with aging, obesity and stress. Low testosterone can be considered both a cause and result of obesity. Men who have elevated fat mass experience lower testosterone because of the conversion to oestrogen. Other signs that may indicate low levels of testosterone include a loss of muscle tissue, depression, and decreased strength, stamina, libido and motivation.
- High Cortisol– While stress is an important adaptation essential for survival, long-term stress can be damaging. Chronic stress can lead to persistently elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is detrimental to your health as well as to your body composition. Not only does it increase your appetite and cravings, it also increases fat cell growth and storage because visceral fat tissue contains a high number of cortisol receptors and responds to the circulating cortisol in the blood. As both men and women experience stress, elevated cortisol is seen equally among them.
- Low DHEA– DHEA is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It is a precursor to the female and male sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone and also helps to counteract the negative effects of cortisol. DHEA declines with age and may lead to an increase in fat mass, reduction in lean body mass or central fat redistribution.This decline occurs equally in both men and women.
I have thrown this word around a few times so I should probably give you a breakdown on what is actually means.
Essentially your metabolism refers to the chemical and physical processes that occur continuously inside the body, which keeps us functioning normally in order to stay alive. These processes include breathing, nerve function and blood circulation as well as the breakdown of nutrients from food and drink that is then converted to energy.
The largest component of your metabolism is your basal metabolic rate (BMR) – which is the amount of energy your body uses just to maintain functioning at rest. This surprisingly accounts for 50-70 percent of the energy used each day.
Other influences include the level of physical activity and the thermic effect of the food you consume (energy that is used to digest and absorb your food). It is thought that your BMR decreases at one to two percent per decade after you reach the age of 20 and up to 10% per decade after the age of 45.
As you get older, your metabolic rate generally slows because the ageing process results in a decrease in your muscle mass and an increase in the amount of fat stored. In addition, there are also a number of hormonal and neurological changes that take place, which will also have an effect on levels of stored fat.
Your BMR is partly determined by the amount of muscle you have because muscle burns a lot more calories compared to fat so when you lose muscle, your metabolic rate drops and you burn fewer calories. This would suggest that the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate.
To increase your metabolism through physical activity, any form of cardiovascular exercise is good. However, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be particularly effective, due to the concept of “after-burn” – that is, an increase in resting metabolic rate that occurs for up to 24-hours post-exercise.
Weight training to build lean muscle mass is also important for optimal metabolism as muscle is more metabolically active than fat mass.
We all know that a lack of sleep is bad for you, but did you know that if you get too little sleep, your metabolism slows down to conserve energy, which then triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Having consistent high levels of cortisol increases fat cell growth and storage because visceral fat tissue contains a high number of cortisol receptors which responds to the circulating cortisol in the blood. Additionally, high cortisol is linked to an increase in appetite.
To add to the vicious cycle, sleep deprivation causes our bodies to release the hormone ghrelin (the hormone that signals hunger) and suppresses leptin (the hormone that tells your stomach that it’s full), which is just another contributing factor to increased abdominal fat.
Regarding how much sleep is needed, there is no real magic number as it depends on an individuals age and lifestyle, however aiming for 7-9 hours could be a good place to start.
There are certain vitamin deficiencies that may contribute to fat metabolism, deposition and storage and those include:
- Vitamin D – Low levels of vitamin D result in your body producing certain hormones that are responsible for fat cells to hoard and store fat rather than burn it.
- Chromium – This mineral is responsible for the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates (particularly glucose), and insulin. People with a chromium deficiency are at risk of impaired glucose intolerance and therefore, type 2 diabetes.
- Magnesium – Magnesium is a co-factor of many enzymes involved in glucose metabolism. It has an important role in the action of insulin, and insulin stimulates magnesium uptake in insulin-sensitive tissues. Therefore, people with lower levels of magnesium may be at higher risk of insulin resistance, which causes fat to accumulate around the abdomen.
Most strict diets follow the premise of a low calorie intake, which in turn may cause nutrient deficiencies due to the risk of limited variety in food choices. Put simply, your body goes into ‘starvation mode’ when you eat less than you need for basic bodily function. Your body then puts the breaks on your metabolism meaning your body becomes very efficient at making the most of the calories it gets from the minimal food and drink.
The mechanism behind this is as follows: the first port of call is for the body to protect its fat stores. Instead the body uses lean tissue (muscle) to provide it with some of the calories it needs to keep functioning. This directly leads to a breakdown of muscle mass, which in turn lowers your metabolic rate. As a result, the body needs fewer calories to keep functioning and fat loss slows down.
Also keep in mind that genetics and inflammation can play a big role when it comes to storing body fat. Inflammation is commonly mediated by the gut and therefore, it is a logical place to start when evaluating and treating inflammation
Inflammation is both the cause and the result of fat gain. A build-up of chronic inflammation over time can increase your risk of insulin resistance and leptin resistance, which affect appetite and metabolism and results in impaired glucose and fat metabolism leading to weight gain.
It could be worth consulting your medical practitioner to check for inflammation and help you build strategies to help combat the issue.