by Caryl S. Avery

When Ed removed his shirt for his health and fitness checkup, he thought nothing of revealing his robust, man-size potbelly. Health and fitness authority Bryant Stamford was not impressed. “I think we should do something about your gut,” he said.

“I can’t help it,” Ed said with a laugh. “This is the way I’m built. My wife is the one who needs to lose weight. You should see her jiggling thighs.”

“Your wife’s thighs don’t pose the coronary risk that your paunch does,” explained Stamford, director of the Health Promotion Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

“Wait a minute,” said Ed. “There’s not an ounce of fat on my stomach. It’s as hard as a rock.”

“The only reason it feels firm,” said Stamford, “is because the fat beneath your abdominal muscles is stretching them tight as banjo strings. You may not consider yourself overweight, but if you don’t take action, you’ll be in trouble.”

When it comes to potbellies, many people make the same mistake as Ed, thinking, If it doesn’t jiggle, it isn’t fat. Still others believe they carry their excess weight in their hips or thighs, and are astonished to learn that they wear most of their bulk around the middle. This is dangerous because research shows that excessive abdominal fat can put you at risk of higher cholesterol levels, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. It has also been linked to increased risk of breast cancer in women.

Despite this new knowledge, popular opinion about potbellies—and how to get rid of them—is still based on misconceptions. These five little-known facts can help you conquer your potbelly:

  1. You needn’t be overweight to have a paunch. “A person can be quite lean but still have too much abdominal fat in relationship to fat elsewhere,” says Judith Rodin, an obesity researcher and chairman of the Yale University department of psychology.

    There are two quick ways to tell whether you are too big around the middle. First, stand up straight and lower your gaze to the floor. If you can’t see your toes, you have a potbelly. Or, lie flat on the floor and place a yardstick from your rib cage to your pelvic area. If it balances on your stomach like a teeter-totter, you’ve got a problem.

    A more scientific way is to calculate your waist-to-hip ratio, which is your minimum waist measurement (taken while standing) divided by your maximum hip measurement (taken around the buttocks). If the ratio exceeds .85 for women or .95 for men, it indicates abdominal obesity.

  2. Women get potbellies, too. Protruding paunches tend to be associated with men because they generally deposit their fat in the abdominal cavity, while women typically gain in their hips and thighs. Still, both sexes can have either kind of fat distribution.

    Melissa, a 38-year-old nurse, started gaining weight after high school when she stopped swimming competitively but kept eating swimmer-size meals. Years later, when she entered a weight-loss program, measurements showed she was not only overweight, but abdominally obese.

    Besides her eating habits, Melissa’s physique may have been affected by having had two children. “As the number of pregnancies increases, so does the proportion of abdominal fat,” says Rodin. While some experts claim that the broader waistlines of motherhood are the result of stretched skin and muscle, recent studies suggest that part of the cause may be a buildup of deep abdominal fat.

    Why this happens is not yet known. Some women may be more genetically predisposed to abdominal fat, and this shows up after they become pregnant. Or it may have to do with breast-feeding. “Since lactation depletes fat stores, women who don’t breast-feed may develop more abdominal fat,” says Rodin.

  3. You don’t have to starve. But to lose a potbelly, you have to cut calories. The best way to do this is by cutting back on fats. Compared with protein and carbohydrate, fat is calorie dense. Protein and carbohydrates give you about four calories per gram, whereas fat gives you nine—double the wallop.

    “It you eat the same number of calories of fat and carbohydrate, you’ll gain more weight eating the fat,” says Douglas L. Ballor, exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “That’s because dietary fat can enter cells ‘as is,’ while carbohydrate has to be converted into fat to be stored. This takes energy, which burns calories.”

    Make sure your meals are rich in complex carbohydrates—including grains, rice, pasta, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, especially potatoes with the skin, corn, winter squash, beets and carrots. For snacks, try unsalted pretzels and unbuttered popcorn.

    For years, experts have recommended that we limit fat intake to 30 percent of allowable calories. But, says Stamford, “If you cut fat to 20 percent, you’ll see even greater changes.”

    Avoid crash reducing plans, though. Recent research indicates a link between abdominal fat and “yo-yo” dieting—repeated bouts of losing, then regaining weight. “It may be that such ‘cycling’ slows metabolism, or simply that many people go off a diet and binge on fats,” says Rodin. Dr. Judith S. Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis, found that when laboratory rats are forced to lose weight and then allowed to eat whatever they want, they select a diet that’s 50- or even 60-percent fat.

    Unfortunately, humans have the same tendency, says Rodin. In one study, subjects who repeatedly lost and regained substantial amounts of weight showed a distinct preference for fatty foods. In another, women with a history of yo-yo dieting ate more fatty snacks than those with no dieting history.

  4. Vigorous exercise isn’t necessary. “Once you reduce the fat in your diet,” says Stamford, “it’s easier to burn more calories than you take in.” Even a little exercise is helpful because stomach fat is among the easiest to lose.

    While a half-hour a day of aerobic exercise—brisk walking, jogging, running, swimming or bicycling—will give optimum results, even a moderate workout makes a difference. Joan Pleuss, research dietitian at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, recommends building as much physical activity into your normal routine as possible. Park at the end of the lot and walk. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. “Just walking for 15 or 20 minutes several times a week is a great start,” says Pleuss.

  5. Forget sit-ups. The best way to shed a potbelly is not to torture yourself with sit-ups. The truth is, they do nothing to reduce a paunch. In a 1984 study, subjects who averaged 185 sit-ups a day for 27 days made no change in abdominal obesity.

    “Strengthening your stomach muscles doesn’t help, because potbellies are caused by too much fat, not weak stomach muscles,” says Ballor. “There is no such thing as ‘spot reducing.’ Exercising a muscle has no direct effect on the fat around it.”

It’s common to dismiss or deny midriff bulge. But such a cavalier attitude can have serious consequences. People who take the proper steps to prevent or lose a potbelly are doing much more than ensuring a nicer appearance. They are laying the groundwork for a healthier, longer life.

*Originally published in Reader’s Digest, July 1991.