What is your body fat trying to tell you?
Whether you love your curves or loathe them, body fat can reveal hidden truths about your health
According to biochemist and nutritionist Dr Libby Weaver (www.drlibby.com), the places we tend to gain body fat first may be indicators as to which body system is in need of some support.
When fat appears on the tummy, the back of your arms and what Dr Libby lovingly calls, ‘the back verandah’, it is typically the result of the stress hormone cortisol, a.k.a. the fat storage hormone. “As simple as it sounds, the first step in reducing body fat for someone with this fat gain picture is to encourage them to schedule daily breathing exercises,” says Dr Libby.
“Diaphragmatic breathing on its own, or through movements such as tai chi, yoga or Pilates, lowers cortisol levels and therefore reduces body fat.” Many of us have gotten used to shallow breathing from the chest, which keeps the body in a constant state of ‘stress alert’. Breathing deeply and diaphragmatically through your nose (so that as you inhale your belly rises and as you exhale your belly falls), tells the body that all is calm and that there’s no need for stress, so the need for high levels of circulating cortisol is reduced. Dramatically cutting calories is also a fat loss disaster, as it puts the body into a state of starvation stress. Cortisol production increases and tells every cell to prepare for a period of famine, so every cell in your body holds on to the precious fat that remains and the metabolic rate slows right down. If you are trying to drop a couple of kilos for summer, avoid this ‘famine reaction’ by steering clear of crash diets and harsh fasting regimes. Never go below 1250 calories/5250 kilojoules a day, and try to remember that slow and steady, sensible eating wins the race. There is a reason that crash diets have the name they do – they set you up for a head on collision with the cake shop!
BRA STRAP FAT
If you have recently acquired a pudgy roll under your bra line (or under the pecs for men), then it could be a sign that your liver needs a little TLC. “Be honest with yourself about how much you've been drinking and how much processed food you've been eating,” advises Libby. Alcohol and processed foods give the liver extra work to do. It will always process the most toxic substances in the body first, so if you have been overindulging on alcohol, then rather than metabolising the food you eat, your body will work on detoxifying the alcohol. Meanwhile, the food gets sent to the fat cells where it can be safely stored. “Reducing intake of alcohol, processed foods and other toxic substances is a great first step. Liver support herbs can also be a useful addition for someone with this fat gain picture,” says Dr Libby.
“Weight gain predominantly around the hips and thighs in the typical girly areas can be a sign of a relatively low level of progesterone, a hormone that acts as an anti-anxiety agent, an antidepressant, a diuretic as well as being essential for us to burn body fat as an energy source,” claims Libby. “There is clinical evidence that the herb Vitex increases progesterone levels, and ensuring you consume adequate amounts, essential fatty acids can help.” (Sources of EFA’s include oily fish, nuts, flax seeds and their oils) The body makes progesterone itself naturally when it feels safe and settled. During times of stress, the body slows progesterone production as it associates progesterone with fertility, and the last thing your body wants for you when you are stressed is a baby. Therefore, it’s as important to include EFA’s in the diet as it is to develop lifestyle strategies that combat stress. The hips and thighs are also susceptible to fat gain if you spend most of your life sitting in the car, at your desk and/or on the sofa. The lymphatic system, which flushes out fatty toxins, slows down if you live a sedentary lifestyle. To boost the lymphatic system try to incorporate some form of physical activity each day. Take a lunch break and go for a walk around the shops, get off the bus a couple of stops earlier and take the stairs instead of the lift. You can also give the lymphatic system a daily boost by body brushing for five minutes before you shower. Start at the ankles, and work the brush up the legs in short, firm brush strokes. Do the arms, the back, shoulders and tummy, always brushing toward the heart.
HOW TO REDUCE BODY FAT
The most effective way to reduce body fat and improve overall health is to eat a healthy balanced diet that is low in alcohol, saturated fat, sugar and processed foods, to increase physical activity and to decrease levels of stress.
Include light resistance workouts to replace fatty tissue with lean muscle mass (such as light weightlifting, yoga, squats and lunges), and cardio (such as jogging, rowing, swimming and walking). Do a minimum of three 30-minute cardio sessions each week, gradually building on the intensity of each workout. For example, if you start off walking, add one or two minute jogging intervals (or however long you can manage) until over time, you are jogging for the duration. When you are able to jog for the full 30 minutes, start running fast for one-minute intervals every five minutes. Working out like this will really rev up your body's fat usage during cardio.
Keep your metabolism fired up by reducing portion sizes, but eating more frequently. Instead of three large meals a day, have five small meals (or three medium size meals and two snacks). Portions do vary depending on how active you are, but the stomach is about the size of one clenched fist so your bodies needs will be satisfied with a portion no bigger than the size of two clenched fists (anything larger, and you are eating to feed the hunger in your head!). Include protein, such as eggs, fish, nuts and seeds, lean meat, yoghurt and tofu in all your meals and snacks as this will keep you feeling fuller for longer. Spreading food out over five small meals rather than three big keeps your digestion processes working more constantly, which burns more calories.
Green tea is also said to speed up the metabolism and is full of antioxidants, making it a healthier, as well as being a liver friendlier, choice than coffee. Spice up your mealtimes by adding cinnamon, ginger, mustard, chilli or turmeric to your dishes. In one study, these spices appeared to instantly increase metabolic rate by 20 per cent and sustain this increase for up to 30 minutes. If you do want to reduce your body fat, remember that lots of little things do add up. Rather than all guns blazing approach – which can lead to burnout, try and make one or two small changes a week. Add a bit of exercise and tweak your diet in places, and by the end of the month, you’ll have made eight positive lifestyle changes. That’s 96 if you keep it up all year! nh