The Short Answer
You’d better sit down because, believe it or not, you can—albeit not in the way you probably want.
If we’re talking spare tires, muffin tops, or that last bit of pooch covering your six-pack, then you’re S.O.L. That sort of chub (i.e., the kind you can see and pinch) is called “subcutaneous” fat, and you can’t “spot-reduce” problem areas. Instead, you need keep exercising hard and eating right to reduce overall body fat. Your genetics will determine how and at what speed the weight comes off, but rest assured that your belly will eventually shrink to more shapely (and firmer) dimensions.
However, if you’re “apple shaped” or if you’re sporting a big ol’ beer belly, that’s likely a different kind of flab called “visceral” fat. Research shows that it is, in fact, targetable, which is fortunate since it’s much more insidious than the subcutaneous variety. Residing deep within your torso, visceral fat wraps itself around your heart, liver, and other major organs, and secretes chemicals that fuel inflammation. Your best strategy for reducing it is to work out hard, stress less, sleep more, and make cleaner food choices.
The Long Answer
Subcutaneous fat is the kind you measure with calipers that flops over your jeans and adds to your chin count. It comes from the Latin for “under the skin,” and it covers most of your body. It builds up in different places in different people, although women often build it up in their thighs and rear ends, much to the appreciation of Sir Mix-A-Lot, Queen, Nicki Minaj, and Spinal Tap.
You can’t spot reduce subcutaneous fat, so if you have a problem area, you have no choice but to burn fat all over until your genes decide to focus on that area. Also keep in mind that subcutaneous fat is found between skin and muscle. Sometimes, especially if you’re new to exercise, your muscles will firm up, pushing this fat out and creating the illusion that you’re gaining more fat. If this happens, just be patient—the illusion will eventually vanish.
Generally speaking, this isn’t the most dangerous kind of fat. That’s not to say that subcutaneous fat isn’t hard on your joints or that it can’t lead to chronic health issues like arthritis. But when you read about fat being linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, chances are you’re reading about visceral fat.
Visceral fat is found deep inside your gut, and it builds up primarily around your stomach, intestines, and liver. Unlike subcutaneous fat, you can’t pinch it unless you get all medieval on yourself. Some people call it “deep belly fat” and it’s been linked to all kinds of issues including insulin resistance and cardiovascular issues.
A little visceral fat is normal. We tend to accumulate more of it later in life thanks to a dated bit of evolution that assumes we have less muscle as we age, causing fat to build up to protect our internal organs. The problems start piling up when you have too much of it. The most precise way to measure visceral fat is through an MRI or CT scan, but your waist circumference can also give you an indication of how bad (or good) the situation is. Red flag numbers are more than 35 inches for ladies and more than 40 inches for the guys.
What You Can Do
The obvious answer is to stop eating so much junk and to get some exercise, for Pete’s sake! Beyond that, visceral fat can be targeted through a handful of basic lifestyle tweaks.
Sleep Longer One 6-year study on 293 adults ranging in age from 18 on 65 showed that when people increased their sleep from less than 6 hours a night to between 7 or 8 hours, they experienced a significant drop in visceral fat.
Exercise Harder A study on middle-aged obese women with metabolic syndrome showed that high intensity exercise did a better job of banishing visceral fat than low intensity exercise or no exercise at all. (Duh.) The women also experienced a reduction in abdominal subcutaneous fat. (Double duh.)
Eat More Soluble Fiber A five-year study on minorities ranging in age from 18 to 81 showed that if you add soluble fiber to your diet, and combine it with exercise, you can accelerate visceral fat loss. You’ll find soluble fiber in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears, and Brussels sprouts.
Lean Towards Unsaturated Fats Researchers in Sweden fed 39 young men 750 extra calories daily for seven weeks. (They were fed muffins—really big ones, apparently.) The group fed muffins with saturated fat in the form of palm oil gained more visceral fat (as well as subcutaneous fat and liver fat) than the group fed muffins with polyunsaturated fat in the form of sunflower oil. Given that there are many types of both saturated and unsaturated fat, it’s unfair to categorically condemn saturated fat, but it’s still worth considering. Regardless, no good has ever come from adding a giant muffin to your daily meal plan—so don’t do that.
Stop Stressing So Much Stress triggers the production of cortisol, which increases visceral fat. The link is that simple. A little stress, like the kind your body experiences working out, is fine, but chronic stress can be problematic. Studies on both humans and monkeys confirm this. Admittedly, telling someone to stop stressing is a little like telling someone to “be funny” or “don’t look at the giant mole on my forehead” (i.e., it’s easier said than done), but de-stressing your life is possible. You just need to be patient. Look into things like meditation or yoga, or just take a couple minutes each day to stop and breathe deeply. You’ll be thinner—and saner—in no time.