Men call it a gut or a spare tire. Women more demurely term it a tummy. Whatever the name, belly fat is not only unsightly but unhealthy. Several studies suggest that excess abdominal fat increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
Men Versus Women: Men are more likely to have a noticeable over-the-belt gut problem, but women aren't immune.
"Fat patterning is definitely different depending on gender," says John Duncan, associate director of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas.
"Women tend to put weight on in the hips and thighs, and men in the stomach and abdominal area," he says. After menopause, though, women often begin to accumulate abdominal fat.
Small Consolation: Abdominal fat cells are different than fat cells elsewhere, says Christine Wells, a professor of exercise science and physical education at Arizona State University in Tempe.
The fat cells on the stomach, she says, "enter and leave more quickly," perhaps explaining why a man can lose his gut more easily than a woman can shed those "saddlebag" deposits around the hips and thighs.
This is not to say that spare tires are a snap to lose.
Exercise Versus Diet: Exercise is the key to getting rid of tummy fat, says Dr. Robert Schwartz, associate professor of internal medicine and gerontology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.
In his studies of 38 men, those who dieted but did not exercise had to lose four times as much weight to lose the same amount of intra-abdominal fat as those who walked, jogged and ate a normal diet. To rediscover the same svelte profile, the dieters had to lose 20 pounds; the exercisers just five, says Schwartz, who published his findings in the journal Metabolism.
In some way, Schwartz believes, the exercisers manage to target their weight loss more effectively.
Schwartz studied only men, but he says the same finding would probably hold true for post-menopausal women as they accumulate abdominal fat as estrogen levels decline. For these women, taking supplementary estrogen can also reduce the tendency to accumulate belly fat, he adds.
The Hard Truth: "There is nothing easy about losing fat in your stomach," Duncan says. "It is a long, slow, hard process."
A sound exercise program, he says, will reduce overall body fat, thus reducing belly fat as well. But fat will not magically disappear in the stomach and stay the same elsewhere, he tells exercisers.
The Bright Spot: An exercise program to reduce body fat (and stomach fat in the process) does not have to be marathon-style, Duncan says. In fact, lower intensity exercise burns \o7 more \f7 body fat than faster exercise, Duncan found in a six-month study of more than 100 previously sedentary women who walked three miles at three different paces. One group walked a 12-minute mile, another a 15-minute mile and a third a leisurely 20-minute mile. There was also a non-exercising control group.
The fastest walkers burned the most calories--as expected--but the slowest walkers actually lost a bit more body fat than the speediest walkers. The body fat of slow walkers decreased 1.7%, compared with a decrease of just 1.1% for the fastest walkers.
"Maybe the slower exercise preferentially burns fat whereas the high intensity exercise burns more carbohydrates," Duncan says.
Stress Reduction: Women who don't cope well with stress tend to have fatter tummies, say Yale University researchers Marielle Rebuffe-Scrive and Judith Rodin.
Women with more fat in the belly area (the so-called apple-shaped body) produced more of the hormone cortisol in response to stress than women with more fat in the hips and thighs (the so-called pear-shaped body), they found in a recent study.
Controlling stress might help minimize belly fat, speculates Rebuffe-Scrive, who wants to study the link between men's stomach fat and stress.
Beer-Belly Link: Giving up or cutting down on alcoholic beverages can't hurt either. Excess intake of alcohol is associated with more belly fat, Rebuffe-Scrive says.
The Payoff: Jerry Davis, a 34-year-old Los Angeles film executive, knows firsthand that life feels better without a gut. When he puts on stomach fat, "I feel weighed down," he says. "It affects the libido." To stay gut-free, he speed walks for 45 minutes, four days a week.