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It’s simple: If you try this program, you will lose weight and you will have no gut.
Because, friend, we need to talk about that gut of yours. We know you’re not proud of it. You may crack jokes about how you’re aiming for a gold medal in the splash-diving competition in 2008. But other than the impressive column of water you spew with each cannonball, you know that belly fat isn’t doing you any good. You don’t like looking at it in the mirror, women are turned off by it, children ask if you have a baby in there.
You have more trouble sleeping than you used to, your lower back hurts, and exercise makes your knees ache.
But the problem is actually worse than that. Much worse.
You see, your belly fat is different from fat elsewhere in your body. It’s metabolically active tissue that actually functions like a separate organ, releasing substances into the rest of your body that, in excess, can increase your risk of disease.
Yeah, you got it: Your own belly could be poisoning you.
The notion that abdominal obesity is the most dangerous kind isn’t new. Back in the 1940s, the French physician Jean Vague observed that some obese patients had normal blood chemistry, while some moderately overweight patients showed serious abnormalities that predisposed them to heart disease or diabetes. Almost always, the latter patients carried their fat around their middles. And, almost always, they were men.
Multiple studies since then have shown that belly fat — the cause of the classic apple-shaped body — is more than nature’s way of telling you that you’ll never become a soap-opera star, news anchor, rock legend, or Men’s Health cover model. It’s a sign that your body chemistry is seriously out of whack. There are a number of substances your bloated belly secretes to your heart, liver, and other vital organs. Among them:
• Free fatty acids. Released directly to the liver, they impair your ability to break down insulin, which over time can lead to diabetes.
• Cortisone. High levels of this hormone are associated with diabetes and heart disease.
• PAI-1. This blood-clotting agent increases your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
• CRP. This protein inflames blood vessels, making them more susceptible to artery-clogging plaque.
The upshot of all these chemicals floating around is big trouble for big-bellied guys. In a study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers took 137 men of all ages and sizes and used seven different measurements to determine their risks of cardiovascular disease. The single best sign of multiple heart-disease risks? No, it wasn’t the guys’ family histories or their cholesterol profiles. It was the amount of abdominal fat they carried.
By the way, heart disease and diabetes are only two of the ways belly fat can ruin your health. If you count them all up, you’ll find at least 39 different diseases associated with abdominal obesity (40, if you include looking lousy with your shirt off).
This Way Out
When we set out to create the Men’s Health Belly-Off Program, our mission was simple. We weren’t looking for fancy dieting gimmicks. We weren’t looking for amazing weight-loss theories. We weren’t looking to invent electronic gizmos or miracle pills. We just wanted to create a simple, instinctive, and satisfying eating and exercise plan that would attack the fat around any man’s middle.
You and your gut will be the judges of how well we did, but if you ask us, we think we hit it out of the park. The diet portion of the Belly-Off Program not only attacks belly fat specifically, but lets you eat regular food while you’re at it. And our 12-week workout plan relies on the radical notion that you should do the kind of exercise you like to do.
So keep reading. Following our plan may kill your chances in the Olympic cannonball competition. But your odds of a gold-medal body just skyrocketed.
The Food Plan
Diets generally fail for one of two reasons: Either they’re too restrictive about the kind of food you put in your belly, or they too frequently leave you feeling as if you haven’t put any food in your belly. In either case, it’s usually not long before you have chocolate cruller crumbs on the corners of your mouth.
You won’t be sabotaged by either of those problems with the Belly-Off Program Diet, which was created around three simple weight-loss principles:
If you want to shrink your gut, get enough protein in your diet. In this case, about 25 percent of calories. Why? For starters, protein makes you feel full and helps you build muscle (which increases metabolism, thereby making it easier to lose weight). Just as important, high-protein diets have been shown to be the best way of attacking belly fat. Consider a 1999 study published in the International Journal of Obesity. Danish researchers put 65 people on either a 12 percent protein diet or a 25 percent protein diet. The low-protein dieters lost an average of 11 pounds, which isn’t bad. But the high-protein subjects lost an average of 20 pounds–including twice as much abdominal fat as the low-protein group.
Get enough fat. About 30 percent of your calories. First, fat helps you feel fuller longer between meals, slowing your appetite. Second, it provides essential fatty acids needed for optimal health. Above all, fat makes you feel that you’re eating real food, not starving in the land of plenty. Deprivation? Hey, man, you don’t need no stinkin’ deprivation.
If you get enough protein and fat, your total calorie intake should take care of itself. Because you feel full, you won’t binge on a can of Pringles and blow your calorie count for the day. The remaining 45 percent of calories in our plan comes from carbohydrates–enough to give your palate a full range of tastes and your body a combination of fast- and slow-burning fuel.
How To Use The Diet
The meals shown here are “templates” that you can vary any number of ways to please your tastebuds and avoid eating the same old thing every day. Follow them and you’ll get between 2,400 and 2,800 calories per day. That should provide plenty of calories for all but the most severely obese, while allowing most guys to lose fat around their middles at a steady pace. (Don’t worry about hitting the numbers on the nose every time. If you exceed your fat quota during lunch, for instance, just cut back a little during dinner.)
Whole grain cereal or oatmeal (1 1/4 c)
Fat-free milk (2 c)
Almonds or other nuts (4 Tbsp)
Raisins (2 Tbsp)
Total: 591 calories, 29 grams (g) protein, 78 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat
Sandwich made with whole grain bread (2 slices)
Lunchmeat or canned tuna (5 oz)
Reduced-fat cheese (1 slice)
Tomato (2 slices)
Mayonnaise (1 Tbsp)
Orange juice (1 cup)
Total: 666 calories, 41 g protein, 71 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat
Meat (pork, chicken, or turkey breast, lean beef, seafood) (5 oz)
Salad (1 c)
Dressing (2 Tbsp)
Dark green vegetable (1 c)
Starch (bread, potato, pasta, rice) (1 slice or 1 c)
Fruit (3/4 c)
Total: 379-953 calories, 23-53 g protein, 33-109 g carbohydrates, 12-43 g fat
Floater Meal (may be split into two snacks)
Whole grain bread (2 slices)
Peanut butter (2 Tbsp)
Fat free milk (2 c)
Apple (1 medium)
Total: 629 calories, 31 g protein, 83 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat
The Exercise Plan
Can diet alone help you lose belly fat? Probably. In a 2000 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a group who only dieted dropped just as much weight (16 pounds) and just as much belly fat (about 2 pounds) as the group who simply exercised.
That said, the combination of diet and exercise is still the best ticket to permanent gut reduction. The diet-only group in the above study lost less total fat and more muscle than the exercise-only group. What’s more, another, very scary study in Obesity Research looked at people who had each lost 14 pounds on a 28-day crash diet. Five years later, they had regained all the weight, with a twist: All the new weight was fat, whereas they’d originally lost a combination of fat and muscle. And their health had deteriorated in multiple ways, including increased insulin resistance and higher LDL cholesterol.
So what’s the best kind of exercise for losing your gut? The short answer is any kind that you’ll actually do. But intriguing new research suggests that for many guys, particularly big guys with big bellies, weight lifting may be the best way to lose weight.
In a study published in Preventive Medicine, researchers separated a group of people by overall build–thinner or thicker–then put them on a 12-week weight-training program. More slender guys didn’t get much benefit from weight lifting, but the guys who were big to begin with gained pounds of muscle. The implication: Bigger guys benefit most from weight training.
If you’re a weights guy, this is the plan for you. The goal of the program, designed by the Canadian strength-and-conditioning coach Craig Ballantyne, C.S.C.S., is to increase energy expenditure while building muscle. Successful gut reduction through weight training combines these two elements. You need to burn calories to lose weight now, and you need to build muscle to increase metabolism and prevent future weight gain.
How To Use This Program
Every week, do three workouts that each use different exercises and different systems of sets and repetitions. Working three different ways each week ensures that your body takes longer to get used to the workouts and works harder to make adaptations. Hard work elevates metabolism, making you burn more calories between workouts.
If you’ve never lifted before, trial and error can determine the amount of weight you’ll lift in each exercise. Try to increase the amount by about 10 percent each week.
This program relies on what Ballantyne calls “the new cardio.” Rather than long, slow, steady aerobic exercise, it calls for you to go hard for short periods, then easy for a minute or two. Do the cardiovascular workout one to three times a week.
While muscle growth occurs after only one training session, it probably won’t be visible for about 4 weeks. Fat loss, on the other hand, will be apparent much sooner. As soon as you start expending more calories than you take in, you’ll start burning stored fat for energy. With the diet changes and this exercise program, you could lose a pound or two of fat each week for 8 weeks.