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The science of belly fat – why some of us have more than others and how to burn it of
The science of belly fat – why some of us have more than others and how to burn it off
[Image: 82441abddc7b21b4b2dbf16dd9983841]
Are avocados the answer to belly fat? That’s the question making a comeback after a new study on 105 obese and overweight adults found that women who consumed the smashable on-toast fave as part of their daily meals did, in fact, see a reduction in visceral fat around the abdominal region.
It’s not the first study to make similar findings, and it’s unlikely to be the last to look at the problem – belly fat being one of those things that can be difficult to deal with even if you’re otherwise in admirable shape. But with the avocado supply chain under pressure and prices on the rise, does it really make sense for us all to be tucking into a fruit that causes environmental havoc? And aren’t there any alternatives?
First, it’s helpful to understand what causes belly fat in the first place. Though healthy eating and a reasonable amount of exercise will reduce fat in general, everyone knows someone who’s otherwise in great shape but struggles to shift that last bit of padding around their stomach. It’s also important to understand the distinction between different types of belly fat.

“In the abdomen, there are two kinds of fat: fat that accumulates right underneath the skin, called subcutaneous fat, and fat that accumulates deeper in the abdomen, known as visceral fat, which surrounds the internal organs,” explains Naiman Khan, the Illinois professor of kinesiology and community health who led the recent study. “Individuals with a higher proportion of that deeper visceral fat tend to be at a higher risk of developing diabetes.”
That’s why it’s worth addressing, but why is it happening? One cause is cortisol – multiple studies suggest that the stress hormone can cause visceral fat storage in otherwise healthy adults. Alcohol and smoking are also factors – though the mechanism isn’t fully understood, studies show that heavy smokers and drinkers often store belly fat disproportionately compared with other areas. Sleep, diet and genetics also play a part – and while the latter’s the most difficult to deal with, there’s still plenty you can do to get your unruly genes in line. So, what can you do?
Well, avocado certainly seems to work – at least, if you’re a woman. In the study, volunteers ate one meal provided by researchers each day – one group ate an avocado, while a control group ate a meal similar in calories, with the Instagrammer favourite left out. “Female participants who consumed an avocado a day as part of their meal had a reduction in visceral abdominal fat,” says Khan. “...however, fat distribution in males did not change, and neither males nor females had improvements in glucose tolerance.”
What’s likely is that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) play a part – they keep us fuller for longer, and also provide the nutrients your body needs to keep its systems optimally online. They’ve been found to reduce belly fat in other studies, and their supply situation isn’t as precarious as avocados – you can get them from oily fish, sweet potatoes and olive oil. Other researchers have also noted that avocado keeps you full for longer – in a study published in Nutrition Journal, participants who ate half a fresh avocado with lunch reported a 40 per cent decrease in desire to eat for hours afterward.
Again, you don’t need avocados to do this – high-protein foods, pulses and even nuts can provide the same benefit. And finally, vitamin C might have a role to play in fighting belly fat – an avocado only provides around 30 per cent of your recommended daily intake, but even that amount can help your body deal with cortisol. And while good old vitamin C is one of the easiest vitamins to ingest, the trick is to do it without overloading on sugar. “Skip the orange juice, and make sure you’re getting plenty of broccoli, spinach and kale,” says personal trainer Jessica Wolny. “They’re all high in vitamin C, alongside plenty of the other phytonutrients your body needs.”
That’s probably it for the old alligator pear, but what about other steps you can take? Start with cortisol. “If you can reduce sources of stress in your life, or meditating works for you, that’s great,” says Wolny. “If that’s not so simple, then start by drinking less and sleeping more – the two go together, as reducing your alcohol intake will improve your sleep quality – and probably make it simpler to get home from the pub early.
Try to keep drinking to two days a week, and stay under the NHS-recommended 14 units – it’s also one of the simplest places to cut down on calories. And finally, of course, exercise helps – though doing endless crunches or cable twists doesn’t do anything to spot-reduce fat around your mid section. Instead, focus on short, sharp HIIT sessions for a quick burn, or long, slow walks to sneak in a bit more exercise – both limit the amount of cortisol your body produces while burning calories.
To summarise? Drink less, sleep more. Work out very fast, or very slowly, preferably alternating between both a few times a week. Eat your greens, plenty of protein, and the occasional oily fish. That should be enough to cover it – and then, sure, treat yourself to an avocado on toast once or twice a week. They are, after all, delicious.

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