Men’s Health Week runs from 12-18th June and this year the focus is on belly fat, the most dangerous kind of fat you can carry – not to mention the most unsightly. Even if you don’t have an unflattering paunch to worry about, it’s worth keeping tabs on your waist size because fat can lurk beneath the surface, wrapping itself around your organs in perilous fashion.
For all the info on what makes belly fat so dangerous, as well as some tips on how to measure it and lose it, we spoke to Dr Luke James, medical director for health clinics at Bupa UK.
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Why is carrying a lot of belly fat dangerous?
“Belly fat represents the underlying fat level surrounding your organs,” says James. “The amount around your waist is directly linked to your risk of cardiovascular disease – heart attacks, strokes – and diabetes.”
Is it possible to have a “healthy” BMI and have dangerous amounts of belly fat?
Even if you’re reasonably slim elsewhere, a small pot belly can indicate risky levels of fat.
“You can be slim in the legs and arms but still have a deposition of fat around the waist,” says James.
“BMI is a useful indicator but it’s only useful as part of a wider picture. We all know that a lot of the Lions team, for example, are going to have high BMIs which would say they’re unhealthy, but clearly they’re not. They’re carrying a lot of muscle mass. You need to look at BMI but also the waist circumference and a body fat measurement.”
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How do you measure your belly fat?
How snug your trousers are can be a good indicator of how your waist size is fluctuating over time, but it’s not the proper way to measure your waist size.
“Take a specific measurement just below the bellybutton with a tape measure,” says James. “It should fit snugly – if it’s too loose or tight, it’s not a useful figure.”
If you also want to take a body fat measurement there are consumer devices like smart scales and handheld scanners now available to buy, although they aren’t as accurate as clinical devices.
“Body fat scanners tend to be more clinically robust if they are more expensive,” says James.
“Some of the handheld ones aren’t that great for analysing body fat. The best way is to use a bioelectrical impedances machine, which we do at some of our health assessments.”
What is a safe waist size for men?
On to the key question, then: what number should spur you into action?
“For men it shouldn’t be any more than 94cm [37in],” says Dr James.
If your waist size comes up as 102cm (40in) or over, then you’re in the high risk zone. Remember, this is different to your trouser size – you need to take a specific measurement.
Is it possible to reduce belly fat specifically?
If your measurement yields bad news, your first thought might be to crank out 100 sit-ups to target the fat around your waist. However, that’s not going to do much but work the muscles beneath the fat, because you can’t specifically target fat areas with exercise.
“You can exercise your muscles as much as you want but if you’ve got inches of fat over the top you’re never going to see them,” says James.
“When we exercise and adjust our diet it’s a whole-body thing. By increasing your exercise and decreasing calories you’ll remove the fat from the whole body, so you’ll get a reduction in your belly fat.”
Dr Luke James’s 8-Week Belly-Fat Blasting Challenge
Taking a long-term approach to reducing your belly fat and maintaining a low level of body fat in general is vital, but if you want a short-term fix, James has devised a simple plan to follow.
“We get very hooked on the idea of it being really difficult to lose weight – and it is difficult – but the actual science is relatively straightforward.
“If you cut down your calories, increase protein, don’t drink and do HIIT sessions you will make an impact in eight weeks – your waist circumference will go down.”
“The challenge is in making sustained behavioural change, but if you can prove to yourself you can do it over an eight-week period it will help,”
Here are James’s four key changes to make in the eight-week period, after which you should make sure you reward yourself. Take waist, weight and body fat measurements before and after to see the impact you’ve made.
1. Cut down on white rice, potatoes, white pasta and sweet treats. There are lots of easy substitutes like courgetti instead of pasta, or couscous instead of rice.
2. Increase your protein intake from lean meat sources such as chicken and fish. Aim to eat 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day. If you struggle to have that much protein or don’t eat meat, you can use protein bars and protein powder supplements.
3. Cut out all alcohol during the eight weeks.
4. Do three to four HIIT sessions combined with weights/resistance training each week. Aim for one hour per session, but listen to your body and don’t push yourself so hard that you risk hurting yourself.