Ring Around the Belly: 5 Keys to Ringing out the Old

Is it my imagination or has Pillsbury’s Dough Boy shed a bit of belly fat?

Wonder what he’s been eating for lupper?

Ring around the Belly, the scourge of us women post menopause, is an alarm signal that your body is in metabolic mayhem. The way your body is burning—or metabolizing—fuels for energy is all mucked up. What starts with a little insulin resistance leads to abdominal fat, early aging, diabetes, obesity, heart and brain disease, even many common kinds of cancer.

Lucky for us, longevity researchers have come up with some new strategies to help rid you of belly fat once and for all.  For those fighting cancer, these strategies may also slow cancer growth to boot.  It’s not only what you eat but when you eat that’s important, and making lunch your supper in 2017 could kickstart your metabolism into a brand new you.

Butter and dough, apple or pear? 

While you could be perfectly svelte and still at risk,  if you’re starting to resemble an apple and accumulate belly fat, then you’re likely developing a problem with insulin. 

Soon your liver could start turning virtually everything you eat into RAB. 

Choo choo! What’s going on?

Let’s say you’ve just eaten some grapes.  When their glucose gets into your blood, it tells your pancreas to release insulin. Like a freight train delivering fuel, insulin ushers glucose from your blood into cells for energy–especially the brain, muscles and red blood cells, which thrive on glucose.

Insulin resistance starts when the freight train can’t get into cells. Instead, glucose puddles in your blood, signaling your pancreas to release more insulin, but the insulin can’t get into cells so it, too, accumulates in your blood. In response to all the glucose, the pancreas works harder and harder to pump out insulin. That’s insulin resistance, an insensitivity to the actions of insulin. Eventually the pancreas poops out, leaving you with diabetes, Type 2, the kind caused by what you eat. 

It’s what relationship therapist Dr. Harriet Lerner calls “The Dance of Anger”—I hit you, you hit me back, and before you know it, we’re engaged in a Mideast crisis, a positive feedback loop that keeps on escalating and ultimately destroys us both.      

Remember this: proteins send signals. 

Insulin is a group of proteins, a hormone, that signals your body to store energy as fat. If your cells can’t get the glucose they need for energy, your body figures, maybe they’ll run on fats instead.

In the face of all that insulin, your liver, a large rubbery organ sitting on the upper right of your abdomen, engages in a process called de novo lipogenesis, or DNL (de novo meaning “new”; lipogenesis, “making fat.”)  It turns much of what you eat, including sugars and amino acids, into fats–and then stores them around your belly ‘til you need them.  Fat cells also engage in DNL and swell.

Then, once you start to build up belly fat, another Dance of Anger begins.  Belly fat is biologically active and secretes compounds that magnify your problems handling insulin. It spills fatty acids into your blood, which then muck up your muscle cells and keep the freight train from delivering glucose. People who are overweight secrete two to five times as much insulin as their trim neighbors.  

And that brings us back to Pillsbury’s specialty—butter and dough.  

What to Eat and Avoid: Sugars, Fats, Protein

Key 1: Avoid fast burning sugars, including refined grains, flours, added sugars. 

Meet the Sugar lumps, a term of endearment for our extended family. Raised on Aunt Jemima and Granny’s baking, many of us have– or have had– a problem handling insulin.   

The classic understanding has been that added sugars, flours, breads, refined and processed carbs quickly raise our blood sugar. And they do. Granny Sugar’s piping hot biscuits fresh from the oven are notorious for spiking blood glucose.

But the latest thinking, according to many medical experts, is that the butter in those biscuits delivers the first blow.

Key 2: Avoid long chain saturated fats–primarily from animals. 

Certain saturated fats cause insulin resistance. Yes, you heard that correctly. Saturated fats with long chains of carbon atoms attached to (or saturated with) hydrogen, which makes the fats hard at room temperature, are to blame.  Globules of these fats build up inside your muscle cells and keep the freight train, insulin, from getting in.  

Foods with long chain saturated fats include butter, cheese, egg yolks and many of the fats hidden (or not) within the flesh of animals. Those plump breasts of chickens raised on growth hormones and crammed into cages have ten times more fat than they did a century ago when Granny raised them in her backyard. 

Tropical plants may also cause harm. Coconut and palm oil and even Brazil nuts, to varying degrees, all contain palmitate, a type of long chain saturated fat implicated in the development of insulin resistance and premature aging. Granted, coconut oil is lower in palmitate than palm oil, but other fatty acids in coconut–especially lauric acid, often touted for its anti-bacterial properties–seems to promote inflammation in the body, perhaps more than other fatty acids.  

And now brace yourself for another surprise.

Unless you’re young and still growing or elderly and losing muscle mass, you may also be suffering from too much protein. 

Key 3: Avoid lots of protein, especially animal protein.  

The Fontana of Youth: Low Protein Plant-Based Diets

Longevity researcher Dr. Luigi Fontana, an M.D., Ph.D. and leading authority on nutrition and metabolism, studies how abdominal fat accelerates aging and diseases of faulty metabolism. Over the past few years, Fontana’s published several studies that are revolutionizing the way we eat.

Too much protein, says Fontana, and the wrong kinds of protein set off a cell signaling process that promotes insulin resistance and metabolic disease, cancer included.  To improve your health and lifespan, you could restrict your total calories– or you could do something less drastic.

Limit protein, suggests Fontana —probably to around 9 percent max of daily calories.

Fontana recently published the results of a small randomized clinical trial in overweight men showing that restricting protein alone (to 7 to 9 percent of calories) rapidly improved metabolic health.  In just 43 days, it “significantly” decreased body fat and improved signs of insulin sensitivity.  In animal models with prostate and breast cancer, Fontana has found that restricting protein significantly inhibits cancer growth.

The quality of the protein is also important, Fontana thinks. He’s particularly concerned about two groups of amino acids, both predominant building blocks of animal protein: BCAAs, or brain chained amino acids, and methionine.  

We’ve talked about methionine before– the crystal meth of amino acids.  It burns like coal and creates damaging free radicals of oxygen in your mitochondria, the power plant of cells.

BCAAs (“bra-kas”) present a different problem. They signal all cells, including cancer cells, to grow.  In another Dance of Anger, they also lead to higher levels of insulin. 

BCAAs tell your liver to make insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a protein that transmits grow messages between cells. In turn, all that IGF-1 signaling flips open a molecular switch inside cells, called mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), which allows grow messages to be continually transmitted within cells.  When that switch is chronically open, your body starts producing more insulin. Insulin increases IGF-1, and IGF-1, as we just said, opens up the mTOR switch, which leads to more insulin, etcetera, etcetera. 

IGF- 1 also leads to higher levels of sex steroid hormones, which could explain a connection to prostate, breast and gynecological cancers.

Of all sources of protein, animal foods raise IGF-1 the most.  Chicken, cottage cheese, parmesan–all foods you may think benign–are full of BCAAs. But so are whey and soy protein isolate, the kind used in making many fake meats. 

Compare the BCAAs in animal foods versus whole plants. A small serving (3.5 ounces) of beef or salmon or just half a small breast of chicken contains almost twice the BCAAs of a serving (1/2 cup, cooked) of soybeans, the legumes highest in BCAAs, and more than four times the amount in a serving (1/2 cup, cooked) of oats, the grains richest in BCAAs.  If we’re talking methionine, the amounts in animals compared to plants are even higher. 

Plus, plants are loaded with phytonutrients and fiber, which lower IGF- 1 and help shut the mTOR switch. Assuming you choose and use them properly, plants can slow your absorption of glucose, interfere with your liver’s ability to turn foods into fats, help prevent oxidation and build that important garden in your gut—your microbiome, the trillions of cells that make up your immune system.  Plus, plants are low in calories. 

No wonder weight loss specialist Dr. Garth Davis, author of the fascinating “Proteinaholic,”  tells his patients to get off protein and get hooked on plants.   

Key 4: Engage in some form of fasting.

The Fontana of Youth: Fasting

Whether we’re talking about dropping belly fat or slowing cancer growth, Fontana and others have found that fasting can kickstart your cells into burning fuel properly.  

And you don’t have to starve yourself 24/7.  For one, intermittent fasting–that is limiting yourself to around 500 calories a day a couple days a week—may do the trick. 

In humans, intermittent fasting “can increase insulin sensitivity more than daily calorie restriction that achieves similar weight loss,” he says. It might also boost brain function. In animals and a few human experiments, it’s been found to reduce tumor cells. “Although preliminary, recent case studies in human patients suggest potential applications …in the treatment of a range of cancers,” he says, “including breast, ovarian, prostate, and glioblastoma,” the most deadly form of brain cancer.

Fasting works the same way as a ketogenic diet, now under study for cancer patients. It forces your cells to switch to burning fat for fuel.  After about 10 to 12 hours without food, your body uses up its stores of glucose. Your fat tissue then start liberating all stores of fatty acids to give your cells a source of energy. 

What’s with lupper? 

Another way to get your cells to start burning fat stores is to engage in long, overnight fasts. The current pattern–16 hours of wakefulness, with only 8 hours of not eating, needs a drastic rehaul, Fontana says. 

How long is sufficient? Scientists don’t really know for sure. Limiting food intake to 5 to 7 hours a day induces many health benefits in humans. That’s 17 to 19 hours of fasting–a long time for holding out. Would a shorter period work? 

A recent study that looked at the diets of 2400 breast cancer survivors found 13 hours of fasting significant–and even longer, better. Women who fasted less than 13 hours per night had an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence compared to those who fasted longer than 13 hours. Their blood glucose was also higher.  The longer women fasted overnight, the better their blood sugar.

Until science knows for sure, the best strategy may be to push the envelope. How long can you go– 15 to 16 hours without eating? Pick a window that works for you. Eat in the morning, make a late-ish lunch your supper–your lupper and last meal– and then stop eating until the next day.  

But can you have your late night chamomile or early morning caffeine without ruining the plan?  It hasn’t been studied, but neither coffee nor tea provides energy/ calories so maybe that makes them fine to drink.  But what if you doctor them with calories–sugar, milk? Will a small amount matter? So many questions!  I wish I knew. 

As humans, we’re constantly challenged to make decisions in the face of limited evidence. We weigh the benefits and risks of choosing one path or another, including the likelihood of the risk materializing and the gravity of the potential consequences. Patterns are what seem to matter–and a little cheating every once in a while helps many of us stick to our patterns. Figure out what works for you.

Finally, speaking of patterns, there’s one last key:

Key 5: Exercise

Exercise–at least 30, up to 60plus minutes a day, several days a week, including cardio and resistance training– will greatly improve your handling of glucose and insulin. 

That’s it–your brand new formula for a new you in 2017: 

Plants + Exercise+ some form of Fasting=

Good health, Long life, Slim bellies! 

Do you like the ring?

11 thoughts on “Ring Around the Belly: 5 Keys to Ringing out the Old

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  3. If you’re still not convinced about the advantages of a low protein, here’s a compilation of studies compliments of Darryl, a frequent contributor of enlightening comments on Dr. Michael Greger’s popular Nutrition Facts blog:

    ” In the scientific community, there’s been a remarkable interest in the hazards of high protein diets of late. Some papers on humans from the last few years:

    Virtanen et al, 2006. High dietary methionine intake increases the risk of acute coronary events in middle-aged men. Nutrition, metabolism and cardiovascular diseases, 16(2), pp.113-120.
    Halbesma et al, 2009. High protein intake associates with cardiovascular events but not with loss of renal function. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 20(8), pp.1797-1804.
    Sluijs et al, 2010. Dietary intake of total, animal, and vegetable protein and risk of type 2 diabetes in the EPIC-NL study. Diabetes care, 33(1), pp.43-48.
    Vinknes et al, 2011. Dietary intake of protein is positively associated with percent body fat in middle-aged and older adults. The Journal of nutrition, 141(3), pp.440-446.
    Noto et al, 2013. Low-carbohydrate diets and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. PLoS One, 8(1), p.e55030.
    Ericson et al, 2013. High intakes of protein and processed meat associate with increased incidence of type 2 diabetes. British Journal of Nutrition, 109(06), pp.1143-1153.
    Vergnaud et al, 2013. Macronutrient composition of the diet and prospective weight change in participants of the EPIC-PANACEA study. PLoS One, 8(3), p.e57300.
    Hernández-Alonso et al, 2016. High dietary protein intake is associated with an increased body weight and total death risk. Clinical Nutrition, 35(2), pp.496-506.
    Shang et al, 2016. Dietary protein from different food sources, incident metabolic syndrome and changes in its components: An 11-year longitudinal study in healthy community-dwelling adults. Clinical Nutrition.
    Smith et al, 2016. High-protein intake during weight loss therapy eliminates the weight-loss-induced improvement in insulin action in obese postmenopausal women. Cell Reports, 17(3), pp.849-861.

    Conversely, there’s also been significant interest in benefits from protein restriction:

    Fontana et al, 2006. Long-term low-protein, low-calorie diet and endurance exercise modulate metabolic factors associated with cancer risk. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 84(6), pp.1456-1462.
    Fontana et al, 2007. Long-term low-calorie low-protein vegan diet and endurance exercise are associated with low cardiometabolic risk. Rejuvenation research, 10(2), pp.225-234.
    Mirzaei et al, 2014. Protein and amino acid restriction, aging and disease: from yeast to humans. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 25(11), pp.558-566.
    Levine et al, 2014. Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell metabolism, 19(3), pp.407-417.
    Fontana et al, 2016. Decreased consumption of branched-chain amino acids improves metabolic health. Cell reports, 16(2), pp.520-530.
    Le Couteur et al, 2016. New Horizons: Dietary protein, ageing and the Okinawan ratio. Age and ageing, p.afw069.
    Le Couteur et al, 2016. The impact of low-protein high-carbohydrate diets on aging and lifespan. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 73(6), pp.1237-1252.”

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