Who doesn’t enjoy munching out on an occasional muffin? Muffins are a tasty treat but not when they show up on your waistline. In case you’re not aware of what a muffin top is, it’s the waistline fat that spills out over the top of your pants when you zip them up, the way a muffin expands at the top as it bakes.
It’s not just overweight and obese people who fall victim to a muffin top. Normal-weight people can have one, especially after the age of 40. A muffin top can take the joy out of wearing a tight pair of pants or anything tight around the waist or hips and, once there, it’s unlikely to disappear without some major lifestyle changes.
Many women who previously had slim waistlines notice the beginnings of a muffin top around the time of menopause as hormonal changes trigger fat redistribution. Prior to menopause, estrogen levels are higher and this favors fat storage around the hips and thighs rather than the tummy. Like it or not, most younger women store more of their fat around the hips and thighs. As estrogen levels drop after menopause, tummy fat becomes more of a problem, creating the perfect environment for a muffin top.
Another reason muffin tops become more prominent after menopause is insulin sensitivity drops. Insulin has the important job of unlocking cell channels that take up glucose and amino acids from the foods you eat inside. As you age, insulin becomes less efficient at performing this task. In response, your pancreas pumps out more insulin to help get nutrients into cells. The excess insulin creates an environment that’s ripe for belly fat storage – and other health problems like type 2-diabetes and heart disease as well. Lack of insulin sensitivity, or insulin resistance as it’s called, is bad news.
You can’t control the natural changes your body goes through, like menopause, but you can keep that muffin top from becoming a major problem through lifestyle changes. As you might expect, exercise is important for muffin top control. You might think the best solution is to burn as many calories as you can with aerobic exercise. Not so fast! You might be better served to pick up a pair of dumbbells or a barbell instead.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania followed 133 young and middle-aged women who were overweight or obese for two years. One group did strength training twice weekly using free weights. The other group was encouraged to walk briskly 30 minutes a day. At the end of the study, the strength-training group had lost 4% of their body weight. The second group lost no weight. The first group also gained significantly less belly fat, the stuff of which muffin tops are made of, than the second group.
Another study carried out by Harvard researchers found men who did 20 minutes of strength training each day experienced less gain in abdominal fat over time relative to those who did a similar amount of aerobic exercise. Sounds like strength training is important, doesn’t it?
Of course, you don’t have to choose between strength training and aerobic exercise, you can do both – just don’t skip the weights in favor of cardio. As you lose muscle mass with age your metabolism and insulin sensitivity decreases, making it more difficult to tame belly fat. You NEED muscle tissue to prime your metabolism. When you increase the intensity of weight training by lifting heavy, do more compound exercises like squats and deadlifts, and shorten the rest periods, you ramp up your metabolic rate for hours after completing a workout.
Other Causes of a Persistent Muffin Top
If you can’t melt that muffin top, reassess your sleep habits. If you’re getting less than 7 hours a night, your body may be fighting your attempts to melt belly fat by pumping out more cortisol. The hormone cortisol is released by your adrenal glands in response to stress, and skimping on sleep IS a form of stress. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed women who snoozed less than five hours a night were 32% more likely to gain weight over the course of the 16-year study. Lack of sleep also boosts levels of ghrelin, an appetite hormone that makes it hard to resist sugary munchies that pack on the pounds.
Another reason a lack of sleep contributes to belly fat – insulin sensitivity drops when you don’t sleep enough. Researchers were able to show this by having participants eat a controlled diet and sleep in a sleep laboratory. During their stay, they collected fat tissue to see how fat cells responded to insulin when they were deprived of sleep. After just four nights of sleeping less than five hours, the participants experienced a 16% drop in insulin sensitivity. This has implications not just for muffin top control but for overall health. Insulin resistance is linked with type 2-diabetes and heart disease.
Chronic stress is another factor that can raise your cortisol level and make it hard to shed a muffin top. Cortisol wreaks havoc on your body in other ways – by raising your blood sugar level and suppressing immune function. That’s why you’re more likely to catch a cold when you’re stressed out or deprived of sleep. So, keeping your cortisol level under control is a must for muffin top control – and for health.
Finally, a diet of processed foods and high-glycemic carbs won’t help the muffin top cause either. If your mission is to tame a muffin top, a diet clean-up is in order.
The Bottom Line
A muffin top can sneak up on you, but you’re less likely to wrestle with this problem if you’re hitting the weights regularly. Don’t give up the cardio, but if you have limited time to work out, make sure you’ve devoted some of your precious workout time to weights. Strength training is important at all stages of your adult life, but it’s essential as you get older.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007; 86: 566.
Today Health and Wellness. “To blast belly fat, do this for 20 minutes a day, Harvard study says”
Shape Magazine. “6 Reasons You’re Not Losing Body Fat”
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