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The truth about belly fat

What's the best way to trim your tummy?
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Can monounsaturated fats banish belly fat?

A diet book called 'The Flat Belly Diet' posits the idea that you can lose belly fat by eating a 1,600-calorie diet rich in monounsaturated fats.

Most people will lose weight on a 1,600-calorie diet. There is little question that when it comes to choosing fats, the monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAS) found in UK vegetable oil, rapeseed oil, olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds are among the best choices, with proven health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease.

However, these are not magic foods capable of targeting belly fat, experts note. While the MUFAS are healthy fats, they are still fats, with nine calories per gram - more than twice that of carbohydrates and proteins, which have four calories per gram, and alcohol at 7kcal per gram.

“I wouldn’t advise a certain number of calories in a diet because people have different calorie needs,” says Priya Tew. “Men need more calories than women, for example. But cutting down on saturated fats and swapping to monounsaturated fats is healthy for your heart.”

Can exercise flatten your abs?

Hundreds of crunches each day won't flatten your belly if you need to lose weight. If your abdominal muscles aren't covered with excess fat, strengthening them can help you look tighter and thinner. However, spot exercises won't banish belly fat.

“It’s much easier to lose weight if you do a combination of diet and exercise together,” says Priya Tew. “By becoming more active, you’re definitely going to improve your chances of losing weight and keeping weight off.”

Doing physical activity is important, says Professor Bell, because you not only get the benefit of burning fat at the moment of exercising, but you also get a long term benefit of changing your white fat (slow burning subcutaneous fat) into beige fat, which is much more metabolically active. In other words, the more you exercise, the easier it becomes to burn fat.

Professor Bell says that people who control their weight through dieting alone tend to accumulate lots of visceral fat.

The risks of excess belly fat

Why is it important to lose belly fat? Carrying around extra pounds in your midsection is serious business. Extra weight as body fat wrapped around your internal is more dangerous than fat around your hips and thighs or subcutaneous fat that sits under the skin.

“There is a strong link between excess belly fat and cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which can have significant effects on quality of life and life expectancy,” says Dr Clarke.

We tend to think of body fat as relatively inert, just sitting there until we use it. Medical research over the last decade has shown increasingly that body fat is ‘metabolically active’, and can generate lipokines, inflammatory chemicals that up-regulates body inflammation. Not only is this undesirable for those with the pain of chronic conditions like arthritis, but higher levels of inflammation sensitize artery walls, accelerating damage that causes atherosclerosis. That’s why losing weight benefits both heart health and people with painful conditions alike.  

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