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Belly fat paradox: I’m exercising hard but not losing any weight!

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Belly fat paradox: I’m exercising hard but not losing any weight! Why nutrition is the keystone in weight management.

In my late twenties, until about 31, I was very active but just couldn’t shift some weight around my stomach. I’d completed the London Marathon in 2010 and I’d been running 4-5 times a week but still had a belly. A ring of fat around my stomach, which whilst not hugely noticeable was frustrating me. I kept exercising harder and still, it remained.

Does this sound familiar?

All I can say is that it’s very discouraging, you know when you are trying your best, exercising really hard and losing weight but still have fat around the stomach. I was At this point I thought that I needed to resign to my genetic path and I should just live with it.

It also made me see why people go to drastic measures and have liposuction or engage in some starvation diet. No really! I was reducing the amount I ate, felt hungry all the time and thought that I can’t eat any less without starving!

I come across many people who are engaged in high levels of exercise, often running actually, who are hoping that by upping the volume they will lose more weight. Falling to do so they either exercise more or feel really despondent and perhaps give up. There are many endurance athletes with high levels of belly fat, despite running marathons, ultras or triathlons.

Really most endurance pursuits don’t burn that many calories, often you’d be better walking. Now that’s not say that endurance activity when undertaken correctly isn’t a hugely healthy option and can effectively burn fat. IT’s just that it’s not an effective weight management system.

There are a number of things at play here.

  • diet/nutrition - who’d have thought!
  • too much volume and too much intensity
  • Lack of sleep stress
  • Not enough muscle mass

I’m going to discuss point one Diet/Nutrition. This is the first point because it’s the bed rock by which everything else is built on. Sleep is extremely important, and lack there of will prevent you from making any sort of progress so I advise someone to reduce training if sleep is a problem.

Nutrition is the key platform by which sleep can be influenced. If you get your nutrition down, then you change your bodies ability to handle stress and therefore increase your bandwidth for recovery. If your body is healthy, well fed and hydrated your tolerance to stress will be higher and you’ll hopefully be less stressed and more relaxed at bed time.

Stomach fat is a key indicator of health, it’s also a good indicator of body fat percentage. We’ve all heard the term skinny-fat, this is where your BMI is in the healthy range but you have low muscle and higher fat. Belly fat is commonly still present when you are skinny fat.

Here’s a quote from the legendary Coach Phil Maffetone, which is relevant here:

“If you don’t know by now, stepping on the scale to measure your weight can be misleading. Excess body fat may take up a lot room on the thighs, belly and elsewhere, but it really doesn’t weigh very much…The most practical way to monitor body fat is to not step on a scale, but rather to measure your waist… Clinically, a high amount of abdominal fat is called central obesity. But one need not be obese—with a worldwide overfat epidemic, no one is exempt from this dilemma, including athletes.”

Which brings me back to my original point, I was able to run a marathon but still had a large stomach.

Sit-ups, crunches, planks they will make no difference, I’m afraid. Doing them is great, you’ll tone up and get stronger, though you just won’t be able to see it unless nutrition is addressed. The problem is metabolic.

Maffetone goes on to say:

“Increased belly fat is a serious sign of bodywide poor health. It’s commonly associated with heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and chronic inflammation. The problem is also seen in those with chronically high-stress hormone, cortisol, and high blood fats (triglycerides), both easy to measure—cortisol in saliva and triglycerides in blood.”

So how do we address this? Ok, there are a number of things at play when excess belly fat is present:

  • The individual is unable to effectively burn fat - they have limited metabolic flexibility, preferring to burn sugar not fat.
  • Quantity - too many calories are consumed
  • Quality - the wrong foods are consumed (i.e. too many refined carbs and not enough whole foods)
  • Ratio’s - Too many refined carbohydrates and too little good fat and protein.

How you address these points is down to the habits you build around nutrition, training is important as it does increase the number of calories you need. But often not by that much!

I work with people to build a structure, a habit base and a system to address their nutrition. We steer clear of extreme diets and instead look to put in place key habits that prevent poor nutritional choices.

We look at the checklist above and design something that fits into their life, their budget and their tastes.

The first step is covered in a previous article:

Food Preparation as a workout

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