“Those subjects who gained the most weight became concerned about their increasing sluggishness, general flabbiness, and the tendency of fat to accumulate in the abdomen and buttocks.”
-The Biology of Human Starvation… Response to the miraculous healing that took place during re-feeding after 24 weeks of calorie-restriction completely ruined the physical, mental, and emotional health of 32 young men.
Some mentions of belly fat came up in the comments section of a recent post. First of all, as a primer, belly fat – or visceral fat, is considered to be the most harmful type of fat. This type of fat is strongly correlated with insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and the escalating problem of impaired glucose metabolism on the way to an increased risk of heart disease, many cancers, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
So what is it? Where does it come from? What encourages belly fat storage? What discourages belly fat storage?
As always, my response to these questions takes in a broader view than what is typically circulated throughout the health and nutrition world.
Once again we travel back to one of the most thorough and insightful studies done on real, live, human beings. Yes, a favorite of mine, and one that holds particular significance in my heart due to my personal experiences with starvation – The Biology of Human Starvation.
In the study, 32 men about my age, with an average height and weight of 5’10 and only a buck-fiddy on the scale (like 70-75 kg), had their average calorie intake of 3,500 calories per day cut approximately in half for 24 weeks. During the 24 weeks, they lost tons of body fat and became skeletonized by the low calorie intake. They lost all their belly fat too!
Hooray! The cure for belly fat! Just eat half the normal amount of calories that you normally eat! Word to yo mama!
Unfortunately, what this ignores, and why studies done on the subject and many related subjects are always incomplete, are the after effects.
The men were of course ravenous post-diet, just like any study subject of any calorie restriction trial regardless of weight when entering into the trial. Don’t think for a second that the fact that these men were lean going into calorie restriction makes any real difference when comparing them to overweight subjects. It doesn’t, as any of the leading obesity researchers will tell you.
And, these ravenous men ate their faces off obsessively, and promptly regained all the weight they had lost plus an extra 40%.
The men were split into 4 groups of 8, and each of the groups received a different re-feeding calorie level during the first 12 weeks of re-feeding. Only one group was allowed to eat as much as they wanted.
As you can see in the snapshot I took of the graph representing the weight gain of each group (click to enlarge it), and how that weight was redistributed, there was a disproportionally large increase in abdominal circumference compared to how weight was regained in the arms, legs, chest, total body fat, and so forth.
The “eat ad libitum” group (T) regained more than 100% of their abdominal circumference while only 60% of their body weight losses were restored at week 12. This means belly fat came first, long before muscle mass was fully restored. Or in Ancel’s precise words…
“Anthropometric data support this conclusion and indicate that during rehabilitation the adipose tissue increased in size more rapidly than the muscles. In the highest caloric group the circumferences of the upper arm, calf, and thigh showed an average recovery of 45, 46, and 54 per cent of the starvation decrement, whereas the abdominal circumference exhibited a recovery of 101 per cent [at week 12 of refeeding].”
In every group, abdominal fat accumulation outpaced fat and muscle deposition elsewhere. And this was just the first 12 weeks. If you are familiar with the other snapshot I took of a graph in the book, you can see that body fat levels didn’t peak in these men until 33 weeks post diet, at which point they had 40% more body fat than they did prior to the low-calorie period. Of course, at this point they not only had more total body fat, but the bulk of that fat was centered around the abdomen.
In other words, eating less food than you want to eat, followed by eating the amount of food you want to eat (or even less as was the case in the three groups NOT allowed to eat to appetite for the first 12 weeks), yields a nice rise in belly fat in proportion to other gains.
Wow. Now we have a real problem. We have “PROVEN” that cutting calories causes a loss of belly fat, and at the same time have shown that calorie restriction’s after effects cause a huge rise in belly fat compared to starting levels.
So does calorie restriction decrease belly fat, or increase belly fat? The correct answer, unless you omit the actual human experience of ravenous and uncontrollable hunger post diet, is that it increases belly fat. That’s what actually happens in REALITY, aside from what can be ascertained by nerding around in journals looking for answers to simple questions that lie right beneath your fricking nose.
“Oh but Matt, in laboratories calorie restriction seems to improve health and longevity in rodents, monkeys, and fruit flies.”
Well NEAT-O! In humans that are not locked in cages but are surrounded by a vast ocean of the most calorie dense and rapidly-absorbed foods man has ever devised, calorie restriction leads to out-of-control hunger, cravings, and a huge increase in belly fat depending on how many rounds you repeat the cycle of trying to achieve calorie deficit through restricting your food intake.
In real life, this doesn’t just happen with calorie restriction. Try carb restriction, which is INCREDIBLE for lowering belly fat! However, when followed by eating a bunch of carbs, which most people crave too strongly NOT to eat, while others are eventually forced to eat because of a long list of minor health problems like indigestion, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, cessation of menstruation, and so on developed due to long-term carbohydrate restriction…
Belly fat returns, and belly fat levels increase above and beyond where they ever existed prior. Hey, let’s not pick on low-carb. I got myself an excellent belly by overexercising for 5 months (great for reducing belly fat!), followed by a 2-week lowfat vegan diet (dropped even more belly fat!) followed by eating to appetite and packing on the most impressive midsection intertube of good lovin’ I’ve ever had the pleasure of carrying around (aided by beer, refined sugar, fruit, restaurant-fried food, and refined grain… none of which are part of the rehabilitative strategy that I have devised in Diet Recovery).
So the question becomes – does eating to appetite of a mixed diet with low to moderate exercise levels and plenty of good quality sleep and relaxation cause an increase in belly fat? Or is the increase in belly fat merely a RESPONSE to the stress you have subjected yourself to prior to actually eating and living granny-style?
If you are intellectually crippled with an aversion to real world observation and experience, or like to analyze diet and health in little fragments instead of seeing the whole picture, then low-fat vegan diets, low-carb diets, exercising like a fiend, and calorie restriction are all fantastic ways to reduce belly fat. It’s just a matter of picking the right guru to lead you to salvation.
More to come in the next post about whether or not the body chooses to store belly fat to completely sabotage your health and make your significant other lose interest in your physical appearance, or if, perhaps, by some far-fetched chance, gaining belly fat is an emergency rescue procedure performed by the body to protect you from the repeated deprivations and stresses it’s exposed to.