The Killer Hiding Below Your Belt

When he hit 42, he entered what most would say was a midlife crisis of epic proportions... you know, the kind where you marry five times within 10 years and behead two of your wives.

That was King Henry VIII of England back in 1533, not long after his first marriage of more than two decades.

Ask most folks what they know about this king, and they'll probably tell you that he was the fat king who had lots of wives and mistresses...

But that wasn't always his life. Back in his 20s and 30s, Henry sported a trim waist measuring 32 inches. The 6-foot-2-inch king had an active lifestyle, weighing a little more than 200 pounds.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and his weight had nearly doubled close to 400 pounds. And the proof is in the figgy pudding – the pudding being his expanding suit of armor over the years...

 A jousting accident in his 40s, where his horse crushed his legs, led to ulcers on his calves that just wouldn't heal. These ulcers even became so infected that one could smell them three rooms away. Some historians think he also suffered from a bone infection.

To cope with the chronic pain that kept him off his feet, Henry turned to food and alcohol.  Supposedly, he ate 5,000 calories a day that came from mostly bread, sugar, and fatty meat. And instead of enjoying alcohol in moderation, he drank ale and wine in place of water.

As a result, Henry's waist ballooned to 52 inches in his last decade, which meant he spent his last years of life with a dangerous amount of belly fat...

Belly fat includes subcutaneous fat – the kind that you can pinch. Subcutaneous fat is located in other spots like our butt, thighs, and hips. Having a little extra cushioning isn't all bad either, especially as you get older. That's because it protects your bones and organs from falls.

But Henry's belly fat likely included a lot of another kind of fat: visceral fat. This kind of fat can't be seen or felt. It's deep in your body, wrapping around the organs in our abdominal region. And it's known to trigger inflammation and cause insulin resistance. That's why excess visceral fat has been linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes... all factors known to damage blood vessels and cause problems with healing, too. And Henry likely suffered from those conditions, which is why his leg ulcers never healed.

It's a common problem in our modern world, too...

A study from August on 1,547 Americans, aged around 56 on average, found that the more visceral fat you have, the higher your 10-year risk of developing cardiovascular disease for the first time.

But in recent years, more research has also shown that carrying extra visceral belly fat affects your brain in different ways. Another August study looked at 10,001 older adults and found that folks with more visceral fat were likely to have lower brain volume.

Even worse, a small study released last month found that having more visceral belly fat than subcutaneous fat when you hit your 40s or 60s was associated with more signs of serious brain inflammation. Specifically, scientists found that the folks with more visceral belly fat had more amyloid protein – the kind that forms sticky plaques and causes Alzheimer's disease.

So, what can you do to reduce your visceral fat?

Don't skimp on high-quality sleep.

A study back in March of 5,151 Americans showed that getting less sleep is associated with having more visceral fat. (Though researchers found the benefits to taper off with logging more than eight hours.)

Sleep quality matters, too. Better sleep means you get enough deep sleep. That's the stage of sleep where your brain releases melatonin, an essential hormone for regulating your body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm. And studies have shown that melatonin can increase a beneficial kind of fat, brown fat. As opposed to white fat (the kind that visceral fat is made up of), brown fat burns energy (or calories). And having more brown fat is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease.

Go Mediterranean. And get moving, too.

Longtime readers know that we love the Mediterranean diet. The largely plant-based diet has been proven to slash your risk of chronic diseases. It keeps our hearts healthy, brains sharp, and depression at bay. Plus, it's rich in gut-healthy soluble fiber. And research has shown that gut bacteria is important for regulating energy and fat metabolism.

An October 2023 study published in JAMA Network found that obese older adults who simply ate a reduced-calorie Mediterranean diet and added daily exercise (specifically, 45 minutes of walking and strength-training exercises for six days a week) not only lost weight but they also significantly reduced their visceral fat and gained muscle by year-end. They also kept most of that weight off for the next couple of years, too.

If you're looking to try this diet, do what I do and focus on some simple food swaps to get started...

Instead of butter, I use extra-virgin olive oil in my dishes.

I snack on a handful of nuts each day... Try reaching for lightly salted nuts the next time you feel a hankering for a bag of salty chips.

If I find myself eyeing those holiday cookies, I reach for a piece of fruit to satisfy my sugar craving.

Switch out beef for salmon steaks that are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Don't forget soluble fiber. This type of fiber is only found in plant-based foods like beans and oats. I love a warm bowl of oatmeal especially now that it's cold out. And adding some cooked, whole beans to your salad is great for extra protein, too, instead of, say, chicken or shrimp. If you're in a pinch, use canned beans – just make sure to rinse them until the water runs clear to remove the metallic taste and cut down on any added salt.

Don't rely on crunches either to banish belly fat. "Spot reduction" is a myth – you need to get plenty of heart-pumping exercise instead. During aerobic exercise, your body starts oxidizing, or breaking down fats into smaller molecules that can then be used as energy sources... more commonly known as burning fat.

If you want to take things even further, I share my top five ideas on living a longer, healthier life, based on the latest clinical research and technology, in my special report "5 Ways to Grow Your Healthspan, Starting Now."

Retirement Millionaire subscribers can read it here. If you're not already a subscriber, click here to learn more (and get details on my No. 1 retirement stock).

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
December 5, 2023