According to the American Obesity Association, 127 million adults in the United States are overweight, while 60 million are obese and 9 million are severely obese. With the U.S. population pushing 300 million, that equates to nearly two-thirds of American adults being classified as at least overweight -- and that's not counting the epidemic of overweight and obese children.
It's simple to spot America's weight problem -- just look around any public area for the hallmark large belly you'll likely spot on two out of every three adults. However, recent research shows that obese Americans may not be entirely to blame for their expanding girths -- rather, a common, dangerous ingredient in many processed foods may have much to do with the dangerous belly fat common in overweight and obese Americans.
Trans fatty acids have already been vilified for their role in causing a myriad of health problems, including cancer, birth defects and cardiovascular disease. But a new Wake Forest University study shows that trans fats also largely contribute to dangerous belly fat.
The six-year study tracked the health changes of 51 male vervet monkeys that were split into two groups and fed identical diets, but with one difference: One group got 8 percent of its calories from trans fats, while the other group received those calories from healthy monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.
By the end of the study, the monkeys fed the trans fats had increased their body weight by 7.2 percent versus the other group, which only experienced a 1.8 percent increase. However, the most telling difference between the two groups was easy to see: The trans fat monkeys had grown large bellies, while the other group had not. Researchers said the weight gain was surprising, since neither group had been fed enough calories to gain weight -- especially not the 30 percent increase in abdominal fat that the trans fat group experienced.
In addition, the researchers found that the trans fats not only caused excess visceral fat; they actually caused fat from other parts of the body to be redistributed to the belly. Researchers concluded that, calorie for calorie, consuming trans fats leads to greater weight gain, especially in the belly area.
Though sporting a large belly is generally considered a social taboo in the United States, it's also one of the most dangerous manifestations of obesity. Research in the last few years has revealed that wide girths often indicate large quantities of visceral fat, which is the deeply hidden fat surrounding the organs in the abdominal region. Visceral fat has been linked with high insulin levels, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure, as well as a host of other ailments.
Even for those who are just a few pounds overweight and lack the telltale belly often associated with high visceral fat levels, the amount of hidden fat can be surprisingly high. For example, seniors should be especially careful to keep a slim abdomen, since even normal-weight seniors with larger amounts of hidden visceral fat run an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Robert Ross, an exercise physiologist at Queen's University in Ontario, says, "In addition to the stethoscope around their necks, physicians should be carrying a tape measure."
The facts are: Trans fats cause the body to gain excess belly fat, and even redistribute existing fat to the belly. Belly fat is often linked to dangerous visceral fat, which in turn can lead to a wide range of health problems. But what can consumers donning extra belly fat do to get rid of it?
First, trans fats must be eliminated from the diet -- not reduced, but eliminated. Stopping the problem at its source is vital to losing belly fat. To guard against consuming the dangerous fats, look at the nutrition facts and/or ingredients list on the label of the foods you buy. As of 2006, the FDA began requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat content on food labels, so it should be simple to avoid foods containing trans fats. However, a loophole in the law allows manufacturers to use up old labels already printed when the law was announced, meaning that many companies may be packaging foods that contain trans fats with already-printed labels that don't list the hazardous fats. As a precaution, check the ingredients list for "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils, which are trans fats.
Belly fat is easier to carry and thus harder to lose; a healthy diet is your best weight loss strategy
Fat is difficult to lose because it is the body's stored extra energy, and years of evolution have trained the human body to be reluctant to let go of its emergency source of energy. Belly fat can be especially difficult to lose because it is an ideal place for the body to carry its stored energy. It takes less energy to carry weight around the midsection than around the legs or arms, for example. Thus, in order to lose fat -- especially stubborn belly fat -- consumers must adopt a healthy diet that is not only free of trans fats, but also free of a host of other dangerous food ingredients, such as MSG, sugar and sodium -- all characteristics of processed foods.
Essentially, getting rid of body fat, and belly fat in particular, requires a whole-body approach. A common myth among dieters is that exercising the muscles beneath the fat on a certain body part will reduce the fat on that one body part. However, cutting out one group of "bad" foods or doing lots of sit-ups in hopes of reducing waist size will not get the job done. On the contrary, fat loss only occurs when the entire body is exercised and supplemented by a healthy diet.
"It's virtually impossible to lose body fat if you don't engage in routine physical exercise, and strength training is included in that exercise," writes natural health author Mike Adams. "By engaging in strength training, you will end up burning fat for hours and even days after your exercise session."
Experts also recommend 30 to 45 minutes of brisk walking (as if you're late for the bus) for five days a week, with greater benefits from exercising 60 minutes, five days a week. The exercise should be intense enough to experience a noticeable increase in heart rate, but still be able to have a conversation. According to visceral fat researchers, such an exercise routine would likely result in visceral fat being the first fat lost; however, outer abdominal fat may be the last to go, so exercisers shouldn't be discouraged if their waistlines don't shrink immediately.
Ross, of Queen's University, says researchers will never find a "magic pill in a bottle" that will increase fitness and decrease waist size, so overweight and obese people must accept that the only way to get fit and healthy is through lifelong diet and exercise. "I can't imagine a better solution to lifestyle-based disease than physical activity," Ross says.
According to George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, "We can't keep stuffing our faces with fat and take a little stroll and think we're doing ourselves any good." Blackburn says overweight people must adopt "a new lifestyle that reduces your caloric intake, improves the quality of the food in your diet and increases the amount of daily exercise."
For the overweight Americans who want to change their health and appearance, the verdict is in: Diet and exercise aren't easy, but they work. Avoiding trans fats and other unhealthy foods, combined with better nutrition and regular, fairly intense exercise will eventually result in the belly-free, healthy physique that currently eludes two-thirds of American adults.