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June 16, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Blood Sugar and Belly Fat: What's the Connection?

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

If you read my previous blog post on just what belly fat is and how it impacts our health, I hope this post will serve as a helpful follow-up by providing you with some action steps to improve your health by whittling away belly fat.

As a dietitian, my focus is on food. BUT when it comes to belly fat and weight gain/loss in general, it is SO important to pay attention to your total lifestyle. With this in mind, please allow me to digress away from diet for a moment.

When we eat foods closer to their whole, natural state, our body has to do a bit more work to digest the food, which results in a slower release of sugar into our blood stream.

The BIGger Picture

A healthy lifestyle includes getting adequate sleep, being physically active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, cutting back on screen time (TV, computer, iPads, the works!), and smart stress management techniques - all components needed for a healthy life.

Okay, enough of my rant, back to the food.

The Blood Sugar Connection

It seems that grabbing a sugary breakfast bar for breakfast or slamming a glass of juice on an empty stomach does more damage than sending our blood sugar out of control. When we ingest simple sugars and highly processed carbs (juice, soda, refined grains, candy) they are already largely broken down for us, translating into very little work for our own digestive system. This means the food can be quickly whittled down into glucose, the simplest form of energy (i.e. sugar), and shuttled off into our blood stream to feed nearly every type of cell in the body. This quick breakdown of our food leads to a tidal wave of blood sugar, which then sets off a cascade of hormones - hormones being linked to belly fat storage.

High blood sugar levels are not only caused by sugary drinks, white bread, and sweets, other factors play a role as well. For example, if I were to drink a 4 fluid ounce glass of juice along with a bowl of Fiesta Bean Salad, my blood sugar levels would enjoy a slow and steady peak, far different than the quick surge resulting from the juice on its own. Why are the two scenarios so different? All in thanks to the healthy fats, fiber, and lean protein found in the salad – all nutrients that are much more difficult for our body to digest and break down into sugar than sugar in itself.

OJ

In a nutshell, when we eat foods closer to their whole, natural state, as is the case with the beans, avocado, and tomatoes above, our body has to do a bit more work to digest the food, which results in a slower release of sugar into our blood stream. This slower release creates a steady state of blood sugar, helping us to feel full for much longer.

So, What Do I Eat?

Think foods that are rich in healthy fats, proteins, and fiber. Examples that come to mind include:

  • Nuts 
  • Seeds 
  • Salmon
  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • And rich, decadent, dark chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa)

Does this lineup remind you of any one diet in particular? If the Mediterranean style of eating came to mind, you are absolutely correct. More and more research continues to pop up in support of this eating style, but I’ll save that for another blog.

When you build your diet on a solid, nutrient-rich base of food and drinks, the occasional treats you indulge in will play a far less significant role in the overall picture.

By including a nutritious balance of healthy fat, protein, and fiber, we are helping to prevent blood sugar surges that typically result in someone who is tired, moody, and hungry. Not a good mix. While I don't like to focus on the "bad" or "off limits" foods when it comes to diet, in the case of belly fat, it's certainly worth mentioning, as the science is there to back it up. Foods that are high in added sugars and trans fats are increasingly being linked with promoting belly fat storage. 

Oh, and ladies? I am sorry to say it, but once menopause hits, we are much more likely to store fat in our abdominal region as well, thanks to plummeting estrogen. I was just reading a recent study that emerged providing proof that YES it is HARDER to lose those pesky waistline inches as we age. Ugh.

A well-balanced diet built around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, fish, and lean poultry can do wonders for our health. However, if consumed on an empty stomach, even a handful of grapes may hold the potential to send your blood sugar soaring. If we really want to ensure our blood sugar levels remain on the slow and steady, we must avoid naked carbs by enjoying them in combination with other foods. In other words, pair healthy carb-rich choices, such as fruit or whole grains, with those that are rich in protein or fat to better stabilize digestion and slow the release of sugar into your blood stream. An example of a ‘fully clothed’ carb might include whole-grain bread topped with avocado and turkey or apple slices coated with peanut butter. Both choices provide a combination of macronutrients (a big word for carbs, protein, and fat), helping to stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent the belly fat promoting hormonal cascade.

The Bottom Line

If you were hoping for a single food that will magically blast belly fat, I'm sorry to disappoint. BUT there is promising research indicating that by maintaining healthy blood sugar levels with nutrient-rich choices (think hearty whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins), we may be able to prevent fat from being added to our waistline.

We can accomplish this mission by eating "just enough." If we take in more calories than our body needs, we are surely going to gain weight and spike our blood sugar - a double whammy for belly fat. 

Do your best. Aim for healthy, whole foods, move more, sleep well, and smile. If you do that, everything else should fall into place. When you build your diet on a solid, nutrient-rich base of food and drinks, the occasional treats you indulge in will play a far less significant role in the overall picture.

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