The spare tire.
The muffin top.
The beer belly.
So many names for a brutal killer.
If you missed last week’s “Wellness Wednesday,” we talked about Metabolic Syndrome, a disorder where three or more systems associated with digestion and sugar management are failing at once. The conditions most commonly associated with Metabolic Syndrome are abdominal obesity, high triglyceride levels, high fasting blood sugar levels, high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol. People diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome are at a critically high risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
We talked about foods to avoid, foods to increase, and activities to increase. Conveniently, these simple lifestyle changes are the exact same ones I would recommend to patients suffering with any type of inflammation in their bodies. If you are currently suffering from arthritis, asthma, colitis, fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, diverticulitis, psoriasis, or dozens of other conditions, chances are you also at risk of Type II diabetes, depression, and possibly coronary heart disease.
Change The Spare Tire
This week, I want to talk about your belly (Not your gut. If you want to talk about gut, I’ve done an in-depth series on gut health, digestive bacteria, and your immune system. You’d be amazed at how important it is to your health). A round belly is an indicator that your body is sick. It’s not just about your pants feeling tight or having to buy size 3X.
I can hear the reaction now: what does a big belly have to do with chronic disease?!
After all, the stigma with obesity has faded as people have learned to be comfortable with their body shape. More and more people are obese. Some cultures even say fat kids is a sign of prosperity. Isn’t it OK to be a little “fluffy?”
I’m not trying to shame anyone. I encourage you to love your body and love yourself, but obesity is dangerous to your health.
If you are a man and your waist measurement is greater than 40 inches (or you are a woman with a waist measurement greater than 35), you are at high risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and even dementia. You are likely diabetic or pre-diabetic. It’s time to slam the brakes on some important parts of your lifestyle.
I don’t say this to be dramatic. I’m trying to throw you a life preserver before the big waves hit.
Understanding Fat – The Good and the Bad
There are different types of fat stored in your body. A little fat is critical for protecting your vital organs and help to regulate your body temperature. Some fat forms in the layers of your skin – we call it subcutaneous fat.
Visceral fat is the gel-like “deep fat” stored around your organs. If your gut is sticking out, it is an indication that you are storing more visceral fat than you need. Medical science used to think of visceral fat as harmless storage for extra calories. Over the last fifty years, we have come to find that visceral fat can interfere with several of the body’s operating systems. As Dr. Josh Axe noted:
“…fat tissue itself acts like its own organ by pumping out hormones and inflammatory substances. Storing excess fat around the organs increases production of pro-inflammatory chemicals, also called cytokines, which leads to inflammation; at the same time, it interferes with hormones that regulate appetite, weight, mood and brain function.”
It’s important to understand a little of the physiology behind visceral fat growth.
The Insulin Train
Your body uses the hormone insulin to manage blood sugar and appetite, in an effort to keep your body lean and strong. As you eat pasta, bread, sugar, or other carbohydrates, your body breaks down the complex sugar and starch molecules into basic sugar (glucose) cells. Your body uses these glucose cells to provide energy to your brain and muscles, and insulin is the train that delivers the glucose through your blood stream.
The insulin train stops at each muscle and organ to drop off glucose. When an organ has received all the glucose it needs, it sends a “full” signal to the train, which then continues on to its next stop.
What happens if the train gets to the end of the line and still has unclaimed glucose cells?
Those unclaimed glucose cells are stored as fat around of the belly, where they can be held for future use. It’s a safety mechanism that your body developed to prevent starvation. The problem is, most Americans never enter starvation mode, so they never use this fat store. It just grows as they continue to consume more glucose than their bodies need.
An apple has a fair amount of simple glucose in it, but it also has a great deal of fiber, keeping the whole system in balance. Refined sugars, flours, and processed foods don’t have that balancing component, so they flood your body with sugars, triggering a corresponding flood of insulin. Your body stores more fat, resulting in weight gain, and triggering voracious hunger that leads to more overeating.
Insulin’s Other Work
Insulin doesn’t just shuttle sugar around; it also communicates with other systems in the body. It activates other neurotransmitters, like adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin. These systems should function like clockwork, timing your sleeping, waking, hunger, digestion, satisfaction, and other mood systems to each other. When your body is flooded with insulin, the signals never stop and your body can’t tell if it is hungry, tired, stressed, angry, or clamoring for sex.
Out of Control Insulin
Have you experienced this scenario?
You enjoy a donut first thing when you arrive at the office. Twenty minutes later, you try to read your e-mail, but you can’t focus. Your hands start to tap on the desk and your eyes hurt. You get up and walk out of your office, but don’t remember where you were going. You snap at a co-worker because you feel agitated about something they said. Twenty minutes later, you start to nod and can’t keep your eyes open. You want to take a nap, but you can’t, so you stumble into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. When you get there, there’s still three donut holes in the box and you’re feeling snacky again, so you gobble them up while no-one is looking. You pour a cup of coffee and lumber back to your desk. An hour later, you’re starving and anxious, standing in front of the vending machine for a quick fix.
That’s insulin jerking you around. It’s out of control. You might want to start looking at clothes the next size up. As your body stores fat and you begin gaining weight, your body’s hormonal systems will ratchet up its “set point” to the new level. In other words, your metabolism systems will recognize your new weight as your ideal weight and crave more calories to keep you at that weight. As you keep eating refined sugars and starches in processed foods, the vicious cycle will drive your weight higher and higher.
Also, make sure you have good health insurance. If you keep this up, you will be visiting your doctor frequently. Why?
To put it simply, diabetes is the name for a condition where your body either can’t produce enough insulin to manage the sugar or the body begins actively resisting insulin. Diabetes kills more than 3 million people every year and disables millions more. Possibly thirty percent of Americans are diabetic or pre-diabetic and don’t even know it. Visceral fat growing around the organs of the belly plays a large role in insulin resistance, leaving the body susceptible to diabetes.
If you are storing more fat than your body needs, it can produce an inflammatory molecule called interleukin-6, which can turn your body fat from a soft, cuddly pillow to a toxic monster, producing a series of autoimmune responses.
Heart Disease and Stroke
As Dr. Axe explains:
“Fat-generated inflammatory cytokines are the main contributors to heart disease and other inflammatory disorders. When your body is inflamed, your liver becomes overwhelmed with cholesterol and toxins, which leads to plaque buildup in your arteries.
Visceral fat is associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease markers like high triglycerides, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”
Mood and Mental Health Conditions
As we saw earlier, insulin overload can disrupt the balance of several important neurotransmitters, including serotonin, adrenaline, galanin, and other hormones, leading to depression, mood imbalance, memory malfunction, sexual dysfunction, sleep disorders, and may contribute to dementia over time.
So What Can We Do About It?
I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but it is critically important.
you go cold turkey on sugars, refined flours, and processed foods. Want sweets? Eat fruit. If you must have a sweetener, local organic honey is as close as you can get to sugar. We’ve already established that sugar is not only a more addictive drug than heroin, it’s also like swallowing disease. Your body was designed to fight invaders, and your body recognizes sugar as a toxic invader.
Limit your breads, pastas, and other grains. Substitute vegetables. Spaghetti squash a delicious and healthy alternative to pasta.
Take five minutes a few times a day to do one of the “Move Right Monday” exercises. Go for a brisk walk after work. Find a staircase and run up and down it for fifteen minutes. Do burpees for five minutes. Do SOMETHING to move your body. You don’t have to run a marathon or join a gym. Just do something.
Get Some Sleep
Get good night’s sleep. If you are having trouble falling asleep at night, consider this schedule to wind down: stop drinking coffee eight hours before bed. Stop drinking alcohol or eating food three hours before bed. Stop working two hours before bed. Turn off all TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices one hour before bed.
Reduce Your Stress
Gotta do it. Stress will kill you eight different ways.
These may sound like unreasonable lifestyle changes to make, but it’s better than being dead. And it’s not just about losing weight – it’s giving your body a chance to heal itself. You can prevent a million dollars worth of healthcare costs by changing small things in your lifestyle. You can play with your grandkids instead of wasting away in a hospital bed. You can live a life of adventure instead of shriveling up in regret.
It’s not a difficult choice. Make the small changes.
Last week, we had another terrific “Fundamental Foods” dinner, and they get better each time. If you live in the Naples area, I hope you’ll join us for the first one of the new year in January. I’m really looking forward to it.
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas