How to Get Rid of Belly Fat
Let’s talk about belly fat, otherwise known as “visceral fat”, the fat found inside your abdominal cavity.
When it comes to aesthetics, this is one of the most prevailing concerns among the clients I coach. They all want to know, “how do I get rid of belly fat?”
First, I want to discuss how visceral fat differs from other forms of fat in the body, and why it’s more dangerous.
Then I’ll address how your gut microbiome impacts the amount of visceral fat you have. Finally, I’ll share suggestions for how to balance your microbiome, and optimize your gut health, so that you can begin taking steps towards reducing belly fat.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF BODY FAT
Fat is not bad. Let’s start there.
In fact, fat serves various roles in the body like regulating body temperature, making up cell membranes; and producing hormones, vitamin D, and myelin (an insulating layer that forms around nerves, including those in the brain and spinal cord. When this becomes damaged it can cause neurological issues).
The body has two types of fat — brown fat and white fat.
White fat, typically known as ‘adipose tissue’ is the most common type of fat and it is the most prevalent in the body.
Brown fat, only takes up about 5% of your body, but it’s good fat, fat that actually has the ability to boost your metabolism and help burn energy.
These fats are then further broken down into two subcategories: visceral fat and subcutaneous fat.
Visceral fat, created from an abundance of white fat, is stubborn fat that’s difficult to lose. It’s also known as belly fat because it coagulates around the midsection and your vital organs. This fat can raise bad cholesterol levels, cause insulin resistance (which leads to more fat) and increased cortisol production (which ALSO leads to more fat).
Visceral fat also produces inflammatory markers, such as IL-6, IL-1β, PAI-I and TNF-α. Over time, these inflammatory markers can promote long-lasting inflammation and increase the risk of chronic disease.
It’s even been shown that this type of fat disrupts the brains reaction to leptin, the hormone in your body that signals fullness, which means visceral fat can contribute to overeating.
How much is too much? Well a good general rule of thumb is that your waist should be NO MORE then 1/2 your height in inches.
Subcutaneous fat is the white fat just under the skin. It’s also the type of fat that’s measured to determine a persons body-fat percentage.
This fat is found all over the body, but particularly on the thighs, buttocks and the back of the arms.
It may not be aesthetically pleasing but subcutaneous fat is far less threatening to your health then visceral fat. It’s also much easier to lose with a healthy diet and adequate exercise.
Lastly (worth mentioning) there is also what is known as ‘essential fat’ which is basically the bare minimum of what your body needs just for normal physiological function.
It varies depending on gender, around 3-4% for men and 12% for women. This type of fat is found in muscles and certain organs like your brain (in fact, close to 60% of your brain is comprised of fat).
GUT HEALTH & BELLY FAT
Okay, so what does gut health have to do with belly fat?
Quite a lot actually.
Within my own coaching practice, time and time again I have repeatedly seen men and women notice a dramatic reduction in their belly fat and waist circumference simply by clearing up impaired gastrointestinal health.
Increasing amounts of evidence point to the importance of the gut microbiome (the thriving metropolis of bacteria found in the gut) in various aspects of well-being.
One review even called gut bacteria “the forgotten organ,” since they are powerful, potent, and their chemical processes influence the body’s metabolism in numerous ways.
Your body contains about 100 trillion bacteria- more than 10x the number of cells you have- and the science linking the gut to belly fat is mounting.
One study, published in Genome Biology examined how the microbiome affects body fat, as opposed to just bodyweight. They not only found that a less diverse microbiome was directly tied to obesity and weight loss resistance, they also found that the less diverse the microbiome, the more likely people were to have more visceral fat.
Additionally, leaky gut (or intestinal permeability) has been researched in Sweden and linked to an increase in belly fat. Women with higher markers of leaky gut also had higher levels of visceral fat and liver fat, and larger waist circumference, which would suggest that leaky gut promotes the accumulation of belly fat, as well as impacts the related metabolic dysfunction.
Leaky gut is essentially the term to describe what happens when the integrity of your intestinal lining- your “safety barrier” if you will- becomes compromised.
Basically the cell wall of the small intestine gets so inflamed that it allows toxic substances that should be confined to your digestive tract to “leak” into your bloodstream – hence the term leaky gut.
The leaking particles, in turn, prompt an inflammatory reaction from your body that can cause a wide variety of symptoms, one of which is belly fat.
Furthermore, studies investigating the link between probiotic consumption and visceral fat loss suggest that probiotics can reduce dietary fat absorption in the gut, causing the body to expel more of it out.
Probiotics have also been shown to help promote higher levels of GLP-1, a fullness hormone, and ANGPTL4, a protein that may help reduce fat storage.
In addition to GLP-1 your body produces a number of different hormones that affect your appetite, including lepton, ghrelin, and peptide YY (PYY). Studies have shown that different bacteria in the gut can affect how much of these hormones are produced and whether you feel hungry or full.
And evidence has linked certain specific strains of probiotic bacteria from the Lactobacillus family, such as Lactobacillus fermentum, Lactobacillus amylovorus, and especially Lactobacillus gasseri to belly fat loss.
These correlations further illustrate the power your gut health and microbiome balance wield over body fat, and specifically belly fat.
HOW TO APPLY THIS KNOWLEDGE
Now that you know the health and balance of your *microbiome impacts visceral fat, you can focus on optimizing your gut health to help with fat loss efforts.
** Microbiome balance is incredibly bio individual. If you suspect you might have underlying GI issues, leaky gut or dysbiosis it’s best to work one-on-one with a professional.
The following are some general suggestions you can experiment with to positively impact the health of your gut and help to reduce belly fat!
1 Eat More Fiber.... Especially Soluble
The average American gets around 15g of fiber per day.
The American Heart Association suggests intake should be 25-30g of fiber per day.
In my opinion that’s even on the scant side.
Aim for 30-40g of dietary fiber per day, based upon tolerance and your current disease state.
Fiber can be broken down into two categories- soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber mixes with water to form a gel-like substance which helps slow down the delivery of digested food from the stomach to the intestines.
When soluble fiber reaches the colon, it’s fermented by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate.
These fatty acids are a major source of good nutrition for colon cells.
They also help reduce belly fat by helping to suppress your appetite. Studies have shown that these short chain fatty acids help increase levels of the fullness hormones cholecystokinin, GLP-1 and PYY.
Fiber intake has been correlated with a reduction in belly fat and waist circumference for years, but soluble fiber consumption in particular has been shown to reduce belly fat by up to 3.7%.
ACTION STEP: To increase your soluble fiber intake, try eating more flaxseeds, oat bran, oats, carrots, apples, and cooked and cooled sweet potatoes, potatoes and grains. If you currently don’t consume much fiber, go slow! Too much fiber too quickly can cause gastrointestinal discomfort. Start with a small 5g addition to your current intake and go from there.
2 Limit Sugar
The science linking high sugar consumption to belly fat is extensive.
One way excess sugar causes belly fat, is by wrecking havoc on your microbiome.
Too much sugar impacts the microbiome in two main ways. First, it has been shown to allow bad bacteria to proliferate and secondly it’s been linked to a decrease in good bacteria. Basically it causes dysbiosis- microbiome imbalance.
This study found that a diet high in sugar impeded the production of proteins that foster the growth of a bacterial species called Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron which is a bacteria abundantly present in lean individuals.
Healthy bacteria thrive on fibers and prebiotics as a food source, but pathogenic bacteria rely on sugar and refined carbs for food.
So a diet high in sugars can throw off the delicate balance within the microbiome, leading to dysbiosis and leaky gut (which I explained above).
The overgrowth of the pathogenic bacteria crowds out beneficial bacteria, causing changes in the internal mucosal barrier of the intestine. With fewer beneficial bacteria along this barrier, its permeability is altered.
ACTION STEP: Limiting your consumption of sugar helps keep your gut microbiome balanced and belly fat at bay. Take inventory of the amount of sugar you consume. Don’t forget to look beyond the obvious, sugar is sneaky and hides in many foods under many different names so do your research and read labels! Once you know how much you consume, simply make it a goal to reduce it!
3 Get More Sleep
But sleep quality has also been shown to impact the microbiome as well. A lack of sleep has been linked to a decrease in bacterial diversity within the gut.
And the less diverse your microbiome is the more likely it is you’ll have visceral fat.
In this study, scientists took stool samples from 1300 twins and found a lack of microbial diversity was correlated with an increase in belly fat.
ACTION STEP: By now I am sure most of you reading this know that adults need AT LEAST 7-8 hours a night, so make that a goal.
4 Manage Your Stress
Stress is one of the number one drivers behind a majority of diseases and ailments, including obesity, weight loss struggles, and increased belly fat.
It creates systemic inflammation in the body and just as chronic stress impacts every facet of wellbeing, it also directly impacts the health of your gut.
Stress also lowers your body’s production of HCL (stomach acid). Low stomach acid can be the catalyst for a multitude of gut problems. Stomach acid kills pathogens, parasites, bacteria, etc. in the food you eat and begins the process of breaking down nutrients so that you can absorb and utilize nutrients from food.
Stomach acid also facilitates the breakdown and absorption of key nutrients essential to the elimination and detoxification of stored fat tissue. Any deficiency will down-regulate the overall functioning of the body, decreasing metabolic rate, triggering cravings and causing energy issues and problems with blood sugar regulation.
All of these negative consequences impair weight-loss efforts.
Stress also impacts the gut psychologically by way of the gut brain axis. One of the lesser-known parts of your autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for your entire digestive tract is what is called the ENS or “enteric nervous system,” aka your “second brain.”
The ENS is connects to your brain and spinal cord in a relationship called the gut-brain axis. What this means is that mental stress directly impacts your gut, causing significant changes to the community structure and activity of the good bacteria.
ACTION STEP: Your body can either digest or stress but it can’t do both. At least not well. Be proactive about managing the stress in your life and also (arguably mote importantly) managing your response to the stress in your life. Engaging in activities known to activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system function (test and digest) will help combat belly fat and improve your microbiome health. Some
ideas: deep breathing, prayer or meditation, journaling, being outside and getting fresh air.
Exercise has been shown to positively impact the microbiome
It is linked to increases in the number of beneficial microbial species and enriching microbial diversity as well as enhanced short-chain fatty acid synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism.
Studies have shown, for example, that even little changes can yield results.
For example, increasing the frequency of moderate exercise from never to daily leads to a greater diversity in Firmicutes. This phylum of bacteria includes Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, species of Oscillospira, as well as members of the Lachnospira and Coprococcus genera that contribute to a healthier gut environment.
Another study looked at how physical exercise in women affects the microbiome.
It found that doing exercise was correlated with higher representation of bacteria with health-promoting functions.
These included F. prausnitzii and Roseburia hominis, known for their butyrate-producing abilities, and Akkermansia muciniphila.
Low levels are associated with metabolic conditions like obesity and diabetes and therefore an increase in belly fat.
ACTION STEP: Exercise type, duration, and frequency is all very bio individual. Some of my clients flourish on vigorous exercise—for them, it’s not only good for their body but boosts their mood and reduces inflammation. For others, vigorous exercise causes fatigue and stress. They do much better with yoga, brisk walks in nature, or gentle stretching. Experiment with finding the type (abs frequency) of movement and exercise that works for you!
FASTING FOR GUT HEALTH & BELLY FAT LOSS
Lastly, you may want to try fasting, or implementing some form of time restricted eating.
Fasting, or fed and unfed windows have some very positive impacts on gut health.
The bacteria that live in your gut have a circadian cycle – different species are more prominent at different types of the day.
It has been shown that in obesity, that cycle is blunted.
But by using fasting you may be able to get the circadian gut cycle running normally again. In this study the researchers took a bunch of mice and made them really fat by feeding them junk food.
Then they tried a time-restricted diet, where the mice were only allowed to eat during their natural feeding periods (for mice, that’s night time, but for humans, the equivalent would be only eating during the day – no midnight snacking).
The time-restricted feeding partly restored the normal circadian cycle of gut bacteria, especially the gut microbes involved in metabolism. And it helped reduce the body fat percentage in the time-restricted mice.
Scientific research - like this- with animals is revealing that fasting may restore microbe diversity in the gut, increase tolerance against “bad” gut microbes, and restore the integrity of the intestinal epithelium.
One 2014 study found that alternate day fasting for 12 weeks helped Salmonella-infected mice clear the pathogenic bacteria more quickly through a heightened immune response, prevented the bacteria from crossing out of the gut and resulted in elevated levels of IgA, an antibody or protein that boosts the integrity and immune function of mucous membranes like those lining the intestines.
Other mouse-model studies have found that fasting protects the gut against the negative impacts of stress, which include inflammation. Inflammation drives fat accumulation (specifically belly fat) in ways that are too complicated to go into detail about here, but here’s a whole paper on it if you’re interested.
A particularly interesting 2017 study in Cell Metabolism found that alternate day fasting in mice led to elevated gut microbe fermentation products acetate and lactate.
This, in turn promoted what’s known as white adipose tissue “browning.“
Brown or “beiged” fat cells contain higher numbers of mitochondria and are associated with greater insulin sensitivity and metabolic health in animals and humans. (Remember earlier in this blog when I said brown fat was GOOD?)
Theoretically, fasting could further promote the health impacts of a diet high in fiber by priming gut microbes to ferment these products into fat browning signals.
Fasting also enables your MMC (migrating motor complex) to do its job effectively.
The MMC s a series of contractions that occur in the stomach and small intestine to push out any residual food particles or bacteria.
Think of the MMC as a cleaning service, that works in between meals to tidy the stomach and small intestine. It comes along after you eat and sweeps away undigested food particles to the large intestine through a series of contractions that happen in three phases.
However this process- this very essential process- can only happen between meals. The moment you put food in your mouth, it stops.
The most waves occur during sleep, because it’s typically the longest we go unfed. This allows the process to occur and then reoccur. When in a continued fasting state hormones such as motilin, will trigger the process to begin again.
One of the easiest ways I encourage people to try fasting is by simply creating a 12 hour window between the time you eat dinner at night and the time you eat breakfast the following morning. If you’re new to fed and unfed windows this is a great place to begin.
Your gut bacteria can produce chemicals that can help make you feel full. By affecting your appetite, your gut bacteria may play a role in your weight.
Certain types of gut bacteria are essential for maintaining a healthy gut barrier and preventing leaky gut, which can contribute to weight gain.
Microbial diversity has been directly linked to a decrease in belly fat. Inversely dysbiosis has been linked to an increase in belly fat.
Gut bacteria directly affect inflammation and inflammation is a major driver behind belly fat
To improve the health of your microbiome and reduce unwanted belly fat try crowding out sugar in lieu of more fiber, aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night, engage in stress management techniques, move your body more, and experiment with fasting.