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Belly Fat: Frequently Asked Questions

What are the differences between male and female belly fat?

There are slight differences in belly fat between males and females. Men who have lower testosterone have greater amounts of belly fat. For men, raising testosterone will over- come the impacts on belly fat of both insulin and cortisol. This is one reason why a strict caloric approach will not work. Weight training combined with carbohydrate modifications is key for men. Lower-carbohydrate diets can reduce testosterone levels, so it is not about going carb-free, but rather about finding the right quantity of carbs. A 3:2:2 approach (see “A Sample Plan”) with plenty of weight training may work best for men.

For women, it is a bit different. Estrogen allows women to be more insulin sensitive and less cortisol reactive. Progesterone also boosts the anticortisol effect. Stress has been shown to lower estrogen and progesterone while elevating testosterone and cortisol in women. This is not what you want. Female clients should focus on stress-reducing activities and more moderate calorie and carbohydrate intake. A 3:2:1 approach (see “A Sample Plan”) seems to work best for women, with a focus on lots of leisure activity and 2–3 days of weight training.

How does alcohol affect belly fat?

Consuming alcohol in small amounts is likely not an issue. However, excess alcohol consumption tends to lower testosterone and therefore may lower the beta-receptor density of middle fat. Also, alcohol is both calorie-dense and liquid, making it an easy path to calorie excess. Moreover, increased alcohol consumption can raise cortisol levels. And alcohol is broken down to acetate, which is the same end product that fat and sugar metabolism produce, and which the body sees no reason to burn and more reason to store. For all of these reasons, drinking alcohol is probably not the best approach for getting rid of belly fat.

What types of activities will lower cortisol?

Anything that has a relaxing effect on the body lowers cortisol. Sex, laughter, hot showers, long baths, tai chi, restorative yoga, meditation and massage all have favorable effects on cortisol. One of the best ways to lower cortisol is to take a slow, leisurely walk in a natural setting.

Does fasting help rid a person of belly fat?

Research has shown that cortisol can be elevated both with meals and also by missing meals. Therefore, there will be some individual considerations here. Fasting lowers calories and can reduce insulin levels, so it can have many beneficial effects on belly fat. An easy way to know if fasting causes problems for belly fat is to assess hunger, energy and cravings (HEC) in the hours after breaking a fast. If a client is able to eat normally without increased cravings for high-fat, high-sugar and salty foods, it is likely that fasting is having a favorable effect rather than a detrimental one.

What are the best types of exercise for getting rid of belly fat?

All exercise will burn calories and lower insulin levels, so from that perspective any exercise is better than none. However, short, intense exercise and slow, relaxing long-duration exercise may be best. Short, intense exercise elevates testosterone and human growth hormone—along with cortisol and catecholamines. Since the effect is short in duration, it pushes toward growth rather than stress. This is favorable for belly fat reduction. Long duration, high- or moderate-in- tensity exercise may push this equation too much toward the cortisol end of the equation. Exercising at a very low intensity lowers cortisol and is great for burning belly fat. Try leisurely walking as a base to any physical activity program, and keep intense exercise to less than 40 minutes if you are worried about overexertion.

To view the full article that ran in the March 2014 issues of the IDEA Fitness Journal click here.

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