There's good news and bad news about belly fat. The bad news is that, according to a recent government estimate, no fewer than 88 percent of the population has signs of insulin resistance, which often shows up on the body as belly fat. The good news is there is something you can do about it, according to a doctor who treats people with metabolic conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and insulin resistance.

By changing your diet, and adopting a low-carb, high fiber approach, you can reverse metabolic syndrome, which is a condition that includes insulin resistance, this doctor's research has found.

Before you despair about what you can't eat, there are 22 foods that help fight belly fat, and can even reverse insulin resistance, if you eat them daily, and avoid simple carbs (such as sugar, crackers, chips, sweets, and other processed foods) that drive up blood sugar. You can get rid of both belly fat and lower your insulin resistance, and achieve overall health, just by adding these 30 foods to your diet and avoiding the types of simple carbs that cause insulin to spike.

What is insulin resistance and how can you reverse it?

Insulin resistance is a term that describes what happens when your body "stops listening" to insulin, so you create more and more of it, and the ugly cycle continues, explains Dr. Cucuzzella, MD, author of the book Low-Carb on Any Budget. Insulin resistance–and excess belly fat–starts because your blood, all five liters of it, can only tolerate a finite amount of sugar in it, specifically the equivalent of a teaspoon or110 milligrams per deciliter, says Dr. Cucuzzella, who is a Family Medicine professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

When you eat more sugar or simple carbs (such as in junk food, bread, pasta, or other highly processed foods) than your body can use, your insulin response goes up, to signal to the body to store the extra as fat. "Insulin knocks on the door" to tell your body that blood glucose needs to be delivered to the cells, first to the liver, muscles, and other cells, to be used for fuel, but then to your fat cells, where it can be store till later."

Things go awry when you eat more sugar than you can use, he explains. The average American meal has about 60 to 75 grams of carbohydrates in it. On average Americans eat about 250 to 300  grams of carbs a day, which is about ten times what your body can use–unless you're training like an Olympic athlete. (Side note: Dr. Cucuzzella says he has eaten 20 to 30 grams of carbs a day for ten years, and as someone with diabetes, this level "keeps me well and running.")

The more carbs you eat, the more insulin is released, causing insulin resistance

If you throw the typical meal with those 60 to 75 grams of carbs, then your insulin is going to do whatever it has to do to store the extra. Instead of knocking on the door, it is now pounding on the door, to alert the body that there is too much blood sugar, and it has to do something to get the body's attention, so it starts rising and rising and rising. When those fat cells are full, the body says: enough! But insulin has to bang on the door even louder to get the body to listen and move that sugar out of our bloodstream."

This back and forth signaling (the insulin getting louder, bullying the body to store extra glucose as fat, the body resisting this message since it has had enough), sends insulin higher and higher, and the body becomes more and more resistant to the message. The body just does not want to hear from insulin again and again, like a spam caller. It stops picking up.

A better way to phrase it is carbohydrate intolerance, which means your body does not hear or see the insulin. Your body eventually acts the way someone who is gluten intolerant acts when they eat wheat: You get inflamed, your immune system overwhelmed, and your gut reacts as if all these carbs are making it sick, which in fact they are.

Whether you eat plant-based or not you have to be conscious of added sugar and simple carbs. If you were peanut-allergic, you can't eat them, but to someone who has central obesity, or who has insulin resistance, they are essentially carb allergic.

Only 12 percent of the population is "metabolically well," Dr. Cucuzzella says, and for the other 88 percent with metabolic conditions, eating foods that help lower blood sugar is the key to shedding that unwanted belly fat, lowering the volume on insulin, and getting healthier.

What causes belly fat and how to lose it

"The primary driver of belly fat and insulin resistance is excess sugar in the bloodstream, which comes from the food we eat," such as excess carbohydrates, causing insulin resistance and creating a “metabolic storm” inside our bodies," Dr. Cucuzzella explains.

As the metabolism breaks down, people develop a condition called metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions, which together act to increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Given the implications associated with these conditions (increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and a high cholesterol profile ), Dr. Cucuzzella has written an article, "Is It Time for a Lockdown on Sugar?," published in the current issue of Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

Why is belly fat so bad for your health?

Belly fat is more than just a cosmetic issue, he adds: "Belly fat or abdominal fat is the dangerous fat," Dr. Cucuzzella says.  "It's called visceral fat, not brown body fat. We need brown fat as protection for vital storage. Women store differently than men, and more for endocrine function and for reproduction. But when you store it in the abdomen it increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The primary driver of that apple shape is metabolic syndrome.

"Of the patients I see, 90 percent of them have it and they don't know it. Essentially the body does not metabolize carbs the way it should. When you look at glucose per deciliter of concentration, they may not even eat more carbs than other people by the time they come to see me, but their body has become intolerant of the carbs they do eat."

The problem is that if the liver is already filled and your muscles are filled (with the energy they need) and then you add more carbs and fat to the blood and over time, you have liver fat. . So not just sugar but the fat that comes with it, so now you have fat trapping. Insulin is a switch, which says store. So if you need to use that fat as the fuel you need to reduce carbs and you can do that with a plant-based diet and you can do it with avocado and nuts and you can throw in eggs and fish for protein.

Carbs are the primary driver of insulin. So to do this you have to lower insulin and if you do that you need to lower carbs. It's not going to go away with a 30-day diet, he explains. Instead, the answer is to change your way of eating and to approach it as a lifestyle. You have to make that switch.

How to reverse metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and lose belly fat

The number one thing that Dr. Cucuzzella recommends to his patients is to follow a diet of low carb, high fiber foods, and to stick to eating real or whole foods. "It's really not anything extreme. It's what your grandmother would eat: Nothing in a box or a bag with a label. Plenty of real food with carbs, but also high in fiber, so while a banana would qualify, it will behave differently in the body than leafy vegetables."

Eating a diet high in fiber and low in carbs is the best way to combat and reverse insulin resistance, Dr. Cucuzzella says. Choose carbs that have fiber, like green leafy vegetables, and focus on getting as many of these high fiber foods as you can, while cutting out the simple sugars and starchy foods.

"Fiber is magical. What fiber does is feeds the gut. Take zucchini for example. It might have six grams of carbs but 2 grams of that is fiber. That means the carbs in zucchini are not behaving like glucose in the body. The fiber will become food for the healthy bacteria in our gut. The same thing is true if I eat an apple, the carbs behave differently than apple juice with no fiber. Fiber feeds the healthy trillions of bacteria in the gut and helps to fight obesity and heart disease, and it makes you feel full.

"We don't understand all the ways that the microbiome helps keep us healthy," says Dr. Cucuzella, "but we know that feeding it vegetables, and high fiber foods such as greens, can help reverse disease and lower insulin. Simply said, eat fiber, in the colors of the rainbow, to provide nourishment to the microbiome and lower your insulin response to the food you eat."

Why it’s so important to eat fewer simple carbs in light of COVID-19

Carbs create inflammation explains Dr. Cucuzzella, which is dangerous when you get sick from COVID-19. "I work in a hospital so people in the hospital often have these conditions associated with insulin resistance, which is obesity and hypertension and diabetes. If you want to protect yourself from the next wave of COVID-19, get healthy now. We see in the hospital when someone gets infected with COVID, the cytokine storm causes their glucose to go up because of the fact that it's a sympathetic nervous system response. But you can get healthy by maintaining a low-carb diet. That really has strength against the virus.

"If you are ever in hospital you need to have the host or body be healthy to fight the infection. The cytokine storm causes hyperglycemia. And when we have hyperglycemia our whole immune system function is disabled and it starts a cascade of negative effects. We don't have a good treatment for the cytokine storm yet. You have to ride it out. The people who have it the worst are people with some spectrum of high blood sugar or metabolic syndrome."

The 22 foods to eat to help lower insulin resistance

Here is my list of non-starchy plant foods that I give my patients, from my book, Low Carb on Any Budget. It should not be expensive to eat healthily. We call it the Green Food list. Eat these to help lower insulin resistance and lose belly fat.

  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Bell Pepper
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumber
  • Green Onions
  • Jalapeño
  • Mushrooms
  • Olives
  • Onion
  • Pickles
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Macadamia Nuts
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans

For more ways to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your life, check out The Beet's Health and Nutrition articles.

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