Sixty-nine percent of Americans adults are overweight, and over 35 percent are obese. Obesity increases your risk for numerous conditions including heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.
Sadly, about 3.4 million adults die each year from being overweight or obese. Globally obesity now kills about the same as tobacco and all wars, terrorism and violence. Nearly all people who are overweight already have "pre-diabetes" and have significant risks of disease and death. They just don't know it.
When you begin to put on weight, especially lethal belly fat, your biology shifts out of balance, veering into the unstable and unhealthy territory of disease -- which in turn makes you fatter. A vicious, deadly cycle ensues unless you take control of your weight.
Insulin: The Key Player in Belly Fat
Numerous hormones contribute to belly fat, but none proves more powerful than insulin, your fat storage hormone. High levels of insulin tell your body to gain weight around the belly, and you become more apple-shaped over time. Insulin also drives inflammation and oxidative stress, creating myriad downstream effects.
Eventually you become insulin resistant, which leads your body to generate belly fat and hold on to that spare tire for dear life. Fatigue after meals, sugar cravings, blood sugar swings or hypoglycemia, high triglycerides, low HDL, low sex drive, and problems with blood clotting are also common among people who are overweight.
Simply put, less insulin equals less belly fat, since insulin makes you hungry and stores belly fat. The best thing you can do to prevent diabesity and all its problems is to lose weight.
The Number One Thing You Can Do to Reduce Belly Fat
High insulin levels don't just exist in a vacuum. They influence other hormones like leptin, your satiety hormone. When insulin blocks leptin, your body thinks it is starving even after a Big Mac, fries, and a large soda. Ever wonder how you can still be hungry right after a big meal? It is the insulin surge and the leptin resistance.
More than any other food, sugar becomes responsible for hijacking your brain chemistry and your metabolism to create insulin resistance and all its repercussions.
Calorie for calorie, sugar is different from other calories that come from protein, fat, or non-starchy carbs such as greens. Sugar scrambles all your normal appetite controls. So you consume more and more, driving your metabolism to convert it into lethal belly fat. We are all overdosed at an average of 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar a day per person in America.
Fructose, the most metabolically damaging sugar, just makes things worse. It goes right to your liver, where it starts manufacturing fat, which triggers more insulin resistance and causes chronically elevated blood insulin levels, driving your body to store everything you eat as -- you guessed it -- dangerous belly fat.
You also get a fatty liver, which generates more inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes more weight gain and diabesity. Anything that causes inflammation will worsen insulin resistance.
Another problem with fructose is that it doesn't send informational feedback to the brain, signaling that a load of calories just hit the body. Nor does it reduce ghrelin, the appetite hormone that is usually reduced when you eat real food.
We are programmed to store belly fat in response to sugar so that we can survive the winter when food is scarce. Genes do play a role, but they are a minor contributor to the massive obesity and diabetes pandemic we are facing globally. Shut down the insulin surges -- and thereby arrest belly fat storage and cravings.
Why Belly Fat is Not Your Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge you're facing with being overweight or obese is not your waistline or your weight. It's not your belly. It's your brain. Changing the way you think about food so you get your mind working with your body, not against it, is critical to weight loss and healing.
If you want to lose pounds, you need to first lose the ideas that keep you stuck in an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting. You need to let go of the beliefs and perspectives that sabotage your goal of permanent weight loss and vibrant health. Thinking the way you've always thought and doing things you've always done will only lead to more of the same.
Numerous factors contribute to belly fat, but over my decades practicing medicine I've found when patients focus on these seven strategies they normalize insulin, lose that stubborn belly fat, and finally gain abundant health.
- Eat real food. When we eat real food, which contains many nutrients, we are more satisfied, eat less, and lose belly fat. Getting adequate vitamins and minerals helps you burn calories more efficiently, helps regulate appetite, lowers inflammation, boosts detoxification, aids digestion, regulates stress hormones, and helps your cells become more insulin sensitive. Along with lots of green vegetables, include protein in every meal since studies show it keeps you fuller longer so you lose more weight.
- Manage stress levels. Chronic stress causes your brain to shrink and your belly to grow. Chronically elevated levels of your stress hormone cortisol cause increased blood sugar and cholesterol, depression, dementia, and promotes the accumulation of belly fat that we so commonly see in patients with insulin resistance or diabetes. You crave sugar and carbs and seek comfort food. Read this blog to understand how stress impacts you and effective strategies you can take to reduce stress levels.
- Address food sensitivities. We often crave the very foods we are allergic to. Getting off them is not easy, but after two to three days without them, you will have renewed energy, relief from cravings and symptoms, and begin to shed belly fat. Gluten and dairy are two big food sensitivities, but many others can create roadblocks that make losing belly fat nearly impossible. This blog further describes how food sensitivities can make you fat and how to intelligently eliminate them.
- Get 7- 8 hours of sleep. Not getting enough sleep drives sugar and carb cravings by affecting your appetite hormones. One study found even a partial night's poor sleep could contribute to insulin resistance. Poor sleep also adversely impacts fat-regulating hormones like leptin and ghrelin. You need to prepare for sleep. This blog provides 19 strategies to optimize sleep.
- Optimize your nutrient levels:
- Monitor alcohol. A nice glass of red wine with a meal, a cold beer on a hot day, or a shot of tequila at a party are some of the sweet pleasures of life. But as a daily habit, alcohol can do more harm than you realize, especially if you have diabesity or struggle with weight loss. Consider this: If you drink two glasses of wine a day, you will consume about 72,000 extra calories a year, which could mean an extra 20 pounds a year. And these liquid calories go right to your belly. Stop for six weeks. See how you feel. Then, if you want, enjoy one to three glasses of wine or alcohol a week. (A "glass" is 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, or 12 ounces of beer.)
- Exercise regularly. Aside from changing your diet, exercise is probably the single best medication for diabesity. Walk at least 30 minutes every day. For some, 30-60 minutes of more vigorous aerobic exercise four to six times a week may be necessary. Studies show interval training and weight resistance can improve fat loss. For a comprehensive exercise plan to burn fat, see this blog.
Take a high-quality multivitamin that contains blood sugar-balancing nutrients.
Optimize omega-3 fat. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for controlling insulin function. Optimize your vitamin D. Low levels of this critical vitamin impair appetite control. Consider taking natural supplements for cravings control. L-glutamine and PGX (a super fiber) are among the natural dietary supplements that can help reduce cravings.
What one strategy would you add to permanently banish belly fat and become lean and healthy? Share yours below or on my Facebook fan page.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, M.D.
Mark Hyman, M.D. believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. He is a practicing family physician, an eight-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show.