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Condition - Beating the Central Bulge - A guide to managing Metabolic Syndrome

By Holly Taylor BSc (Hons) DipCNM MBANT

 Obesity experts used to think that total body fat was the main predictor of weight-related disease - the higher the body fat percentage, the greater the health risk. Now, it is thought that location of fatty tissue is actually more important. To be specific, excessive body fat stored around the stomach and abdomen is a key risk factor for weight-related disease. 

 There are actually two main types of fat in the body. Subcutaneous fat is stored under the skin and tends to collect on the hips, thighs and buttocks. Visceral fat, on the other hand, is deposited much more deeply in the body, in a special cavity behind the stomach muscles, called the greater omentum. It causes the hard protruding stomach we associate with the apple body shape. 

So why is an apple shape such a health risk?

Large amounts of visceral fat are strongly linked with degenerative changes in the blood vessels such as atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), which is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Excess visceral fat is also associated with increased risk of fertility problems, certain cancers and type II diabetes. 

The main problem is that visceral fat releases a lot of inflammatory messengers into the body that interfere with our hormones, cause our blood vessels to constrict (which raises blood pressure), make our blood more likely to clot and interfere with our ability to properly manage our blood sugar levels. 

Whenever we eat foods containing sugar or carbohydrates, such as starch, they are broken down in the digestive system into a sugar called glucose that is absorbed into the blood and transported to our cells, where it can be burnt for energy. In a healthy person, the hormone insulin tightly controls the level of sugar in the blood. As blood sugar levels rise, insulin is released to allow that sugar to be absorbed into our cells. Any excess sugar, above and beyond what is needed is then redirected by the insulin to be stored as fat. Unfortunately, the messengers released by visceral fat can cause our cells to stop listening to insulin, a condition known as insulin resistance. 

Insulin resistance can be a highly detrimental vicious circle. When muscle cells stop responding properly to insulin, sugar remains stuck in the blood stream. This leads to high blood sugar levels, which cause the body to produce more insulin and lay down more fat, all of which lead to cells becoming even more insulin resistant! Insulin resistance is linked to the development of type II diabetes, which is why central obesity is considered a risk factor. 

In addition to muscle cells becoming insulin resistant, fat cells can also stop properly responding to insulin, too. This is particularly dangerous because it causes the fat cells to start to release some of their fatty acids into the blood. This can lead to raised levels of fats, called triglycerides, in the blood, which are an additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, the high levels of insulin caused by insulin resistance encourage the body to make more of the bad LDL cholesterol and less of the good HDL cholesterol. This can lead to a build up of fatty deposits that narrow and harden the arteries and increase the chance of forming dangerous blood clots. 

The presence of central obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, abnormal blood fats, tendency to blood clots and inflammation is termed metabolic syndrome. Also known as syndrome X, metabolic syndrome is a recognised risk factor for the development of chronic diseases. 

Although genetics play some role in the development of metabolic syndrome, it is largely related to lifestyle. The good news is that, with some well-chosen supplements and simple lifestyle changes, you can balance blood sugar levels, reduce visceral fat and help to prevent metabolic syndrome and its progression to serious health problems. 

Supplements for metabolic balance

  • Chromium – studies suggest that chromium may help maintain normal cell-sensitivity to insulin, as well as aiding blood sugar balance and weight loss.
  • Magnesium and zinc – both these minerals are essential for proper insulin response and management of blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, due to poor dietary intake and stressful lifestyles, many of us are depleted.
  • B vitamins – stress and high blood sugar levels deplete B vitamin levels, but they are needed by each and every cell, in order to burn glucose and fat properly.
  • Alpha lipoic acid – a powerful antioxidant that may also help curb body weight, by helping muscle cells respond properly to insulin.
  • Acetyl l carnitine – helps the body to burn fat for energy.
  • Cinnamon – helps keep blood sugar levels stable, curb appetite and beat sweet cravings.
  • Liquorice – helps to buffer the negative effect stress hormones can have on the waistline.
  • Fenugreek – can help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and low levels of bad cholesterol.
  • Essential fatty acids – oils, such as those found in flax seeds, hemp seeds and oily fish, can help cells to respond better to insulin, encourage fat burning and maintain cholesterol balance.

 Lifestyle changes to help beat the bulge

  • Limit your intake of the refined and sugary foods - these raise blood sugar levels and contribute to insulin resistance. The majority of your diet should be based on wholesome, unprocessed foods. This means swapping to brown and wholegrain options for pasta, bread and rice and eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Eat three main meals and two snacks each day – include healthy fats such as flax, olive or hemp seed oil and lean protein (fish, poultry, beans and pulses) to slow down the rate at which glucose is taken into the bloodstream.
  • Swap sugar for xylitol – it contains less calories than sugar  and won’t cause a rapid peak in blood sugar levels.
  • Avoid stimulants – alcohol, smoking and caffeine all cause sharp rises in blood sugar levels and can contribute to insulin resistance. Why not swap coffee for green tea, which can help you to burn off excess fat?
  • Get moving! – exercise helps to reverse insulin resistance and aids visceral fat loss. Exercise can also help to offset some of the inflammatory effects of visceral fat. Obesity experts used to think that total body fat was the main predictor of weight-related disease - the higher the body fat percentage, the greater the health risk. Now, it is thought that location of fatty tissue is actually more important. To be specific, excessive body fat stored around the stomach and abdomen is a key risk factor for weight-related disease.
  • Reduce stress – stress raises blood sugar levels, causes us to eat more than we need and makes us put on weight around the middle.

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