Most of the bacteria that dwell in your gut are pretty useful. They produce hormones, regulate your immune system, digest food, extract nutrients, control your mood, manage your appetite, and much more besides. That obese people tend to have higher numbers of Firmicutes bacteria is no coincidence – according to research published in the online journal Nature, these bacteria increase the number of calories your body absorbs from food.
So it’s not uncommon for people to carry excessive amounts of fat (that we can’t see) around their vital organs despite not appearing to be overweight at all. These people have a phenomenon known as “skinny fat.” Skinny fat refers to someone who’s weight outwardly looks trim for their height, but have high levels of visceral fat inside and are susceptible to the same health problems as someone who is overweight such as high cholesterol or hypertension.
You've heard it before, but it needs to be said again, as at least 70 percent of Americans aren't listening: "Staying up late may make you happy in the moment, but all that sleep you're skipping catches up to you in the form of extra fat around your middle," says Ilyse Schapiro, R.D., a certified nutritionist and co-author of Should I Scoop Out My Bagel? Yes, "me time" is important for your sanity, but "when you're lacking sleep, your body overproduces the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and under-produces leptin, which tells you when you're full." Getting proper shut-eye — the National Sleep Foundation says seven to nine hours is best, though it varies per person — truly stops unnecessary snacking when you wake up the next day.
Excess weight is unhealthy, but extra abdominal weight is especially unhealthy, according to some experts. Abdominal fat cells are more than just stored energy. These cells make hormones and other substances that can impact your health. Some experts say that too much belly fat increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, diabetes, gallbladder problems, high blood pressure and colorectal cancer.
When Tufts University researchers studied the waistlines and diets of 459 people, they found that even in men of similar age and activity level, those who ate white bread frequently weighed more than those who didn’t. “The calories from white bread and refined grains just seem to settle at the waistline more than calories from other foods,” says Katherine Tucker, Ph.D., the study author.
Walking puts all of the abdominal muscles to work. Make sure you swing your arms and contract your midsection while you walk, and maintain a brisk pace. Once you get your body accustomed to a daily walk, you'll hate to go a day without it. Walk for at least thirty minutes each time to achieve the aerobic effect, and be sure to drink plenty of water.
Tight deadlines, bills, your kids—whatever your source of stress, having too much of it may make it harder for you to drop unwanted pounds, especially from your middle. And it's not just because you tend to reach for high-fat, high-calorie fare when you're stressed, though that's part of it. It's also due to the stress hormone cortisol, which may increase the amount of fat your body clings to and enlarge your fat cells. Higher levels of cortisol have been linked to more visceral fat.
Don’t let extra hours lounging in bed stand between you and a flatter belly. While getting enough sleep can help boost your metabolic rate, sleeping in may undo any benefit you’d enjoy from catching a few extra winks. One study reveals that late sleepers who snoozed past 10:45 in the morning ate nearly 250 more calories over the course of the day, despite eating half as many fruits and vegetables as their early bird counterparts. Even worse, they chowed down on more salty, sugary, and trans fat-laden fast food than those who woke up earlier. If you happen to head out of the house early, you’re in for an additional metabolic boost; researchers at Northwestern University have found that people exposed to just a short period of early morning sunlight had lower BMIs than their late-waking counterparts.
Which means, sadly, the more glasses of rose and chocolate-coated pretzels you eat, the longer it will take to reach your flatter belly goals. “When you digest large amounts of calories, your body allocates some of these to functional systems which work to keep you alive (think the brain, muscles and organs),” says Belalij. “It also uses it to fill up energy stores. Any excess is then stored in fat cells around the body – typically being those of the belly.”