Nutrition: “belly fat” and other myths

I wanted to run through a few things here that seem to pop up over and over again. In the fitness industry there are regularly phrases, words and concepts that, even once we believe we’ve squashed them, seem to rise up from the ashes like some fact-free phoenix. They’re harmful, first because they aren’t true (or are just true enough that the false portion of them hurts people), and second because they trick people into believing in a path towards fitness and health that simply doesn’t exist. Today I’m just going to focus on nutrition.

The Spare Tire Fire
Let’s start with one that I still see all the time, the classic and frightening “belly fat”. In nearly all cases it relates to a food or supplement product (or in some cases, an exercise machine) that burns it.

Here’s some science for you. The human body stores fat as a method of long term survival. In ages past there were times when we went a long time without food. Harsh winters, droughts, you name it. Our ancestors sometimes had to scrounge and live off of what their body had stored up. That stored fuel was fat. It was a good thing, at the time.

The human body layers on fat in a particular pattern and burns it off in the opposite pattern. This pattern is different for males and females, and can also vary slightly between individuals, but generally for men we start putting it on in the core area first, going then to the chest, buttocks, legs and arms. When we burn it back off, we primarily burn it from the outside in (another function of fatty reserves was as an insulator, and core temp is the key to surviving when the weather outside is frightful. As for women, the fat accumulation starts a bit lower in the thighs and buttocks, then hits the core, chest, lower legs and arms.

Now occasionally the pattern is different on a particular individual. For example, I tend to pack fat on very evenly across my core and chest, and also store some between my organs (which is, by the way, extremely bad).  Hence you see the “pear shaped” and “apple shaped” people out there. Occasionally the “tree shaped” people.

Here’s the kicker though. No matter if you do pull-ups, crunches, run, swim or do jumping jacks in a vat of pudding, the fat is going to come off in the pattern I described. Period. End of discussion. The idea of “burning belly fat” is scientifically ludicrous, you burn belly fat when the time comes to burn it. If you still have a lot of fat elsewhere, it will have to take its turn. Does that mean you’re not burning ANYTHING off your belly? No, a bit comes off of everywhere but let’s just put it this way, you’ll see the outlines of your biceps and delts before you see your abs. You ever see a guy with a flabby neck/arms with visible abs? No. You know why? SCIENCE!

So why all the focus on burning the belly? Well, it should be obvious. It tends to be the last thing to go, and is therefor seen as a tough thing to rid oneself of. For this and other reasons, the “visible abs” thing has been, as of late, a highly desirable trait (especially on men). Humans are always seeking shortcuts, the easy way, and this one is a proven winner. And a total farce. Stick to your nutritional plan, exercise regularly and the belly fat will reduce itself… alongside all the other excess fat hanging off yer carcass.

Eating vegetarian, eating vegetarians
The number of myths and half truths about eating vegetarian could fill a book, but let’s cover a few of the major ones.

No protein! You’ll lose all your muscles! Yes, well, this one is just true enough to be dangerous. Are there veggies with little to no protein? Sure. Are those the only ones you’ll be eating? I sincerely hope not! A balanced diet means balancing across the board, and the vegetable world is a varied and rich one. I’ll put chia seeds up against any meat. It is pretty damn amazing stuff. Ever hear of quinoa? Tons of protein. Beans too. If you’re not vegan, dairy also provides a number of solid protein choices. Don’t forget nuts and seeds either. There’s plenty of protein to be found in a vegetarian diet, you just have to educate yourself. Imagine that!

You’ll die of iron deficiency! This one comes close to being true, unfortunately, but not because vegetarian diets lack iron. The trouble is that non-hemo (i.e. non-meat) sources of iron tend to not be as bio-available to the human body as those that used to moo, baa, oink or squawk.  There’s ways around this, but it can be tricky, especially for women who tend to have higher iron requirements than men. Intake of Vitamin C alongside your iron can help make it easier to absorb. Cereals with iron supplement built into it can help, as can straight up iron supplements. And you have to be careful when taking in dairy, as calcium can hinder the absorption of non-hemo iron sources. The bottom line is that if you want to avoid anemia you might need a doctor’s or nutritionalist’s help if you’re purely going vegetarian. Which isn’t a bad thing, they probably know a heck of a lot more about nutrition in general than the layperson. As for me, I just eat meat once every 7 to 10 days and get all the iron I need. I have nothing against meat, I just don’t eat a lot of it, and that has worked great for me. Your mileage may vary.

Eating vegetarian = losing weight. This one bugs me, a lot. There’s this idea that if you become a vegetarian you will suddenly and easily lose all the weight in the world (the same goes for being vegan). Can going vegetarian help with lowering your body’s fat percentage? It can, a vegetarian diet CAN have a more advantageous nutrition to calorie ration than a meat based diet (per volume). However, the problem almost invariable happens when someone says “I’m a vegetarian!” and then goes off and has a dinner of cupcakes, cheesy garlic bread and diet soda (which scientists are now finding has a better chance of helping you gain weight than the full sugar kind). Meaning they cut out meat and then focus on eating simple sugars, heavily processed grains and other items that, nutritionally, suck. If you eat whole foods, cut out processed sugars and grains and focus on eating well, often, more than likely you’ll come down to a healthier weight. If your version of being a vegetarian is “cheese pizza, extra garlic” then you’re gonna have a bad time.

The bottom line here is that the important part is education, information based on real science and combining that way of eating with regular exercise. Humans are machines, you can’t just fuel them, you have to drive them too. Vroom vroom.

One thought on “Nutrition: “belly fat” and other myths

  1. Thank you for this! I wrote a post earlier in the week that touched briefly on how misconceptions like this infuriate me, but I didn’t delve into them. I’ve had friends tell me they can’t eat breakfast because they’re trying to lose weight, they can’t do strength training because they’re trying to lose weight, and all sorts of other whacky things. I look forward to seeing more of these 🙂

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