How to beat your beer belly
70% of Aussie men are carrying too much weight
If it was healthy to have a ‘beer gut’, a fair few Aussie men would be onto a very good thing. Because, even though beer consumption has fallen per capita in Australia over the past few years, nearly 70 per cent of men are carrying too much weight – and it’s not uncommon for that weight to gather around a man’s stomach. The result? The classic ‘beer belly’ shape. “There’s a fair bit of male-female difference when it comes to weight distribution," says GP and weight-loss specialist Dr Andrew Binns. “And it’s largely due to our hormones. This dictates the trend for women to deposit fat around their hips, thighs and buttocks, whereas for men fat often goes straight to their belly."
And unfortunately, it’s abdominal fat that tends to be the unhealthiest kind. According to the Mayo Clinic in the US, excess abdominal fat can significantly increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, high triglycerides, low levels of good cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, some cancers and sleep apnoea. The Australian Department of Health classifies abdominal obesity in males, or a ‘clinical beer gut’, as a waist circumference greater than 102cm. A healthy waist is considered to be less than 94cm.
Is it just beer that’s giving me a ‘beer belly’?
Gaining weight around the stomach is usually the result of a lot of different factors: genetics, hormones, less-healthy food and drink choices – including both alcohol and soft drinks – not enough physical activity and, crucially, a slowing metabolism. “Men (like women) tend to gain more weight as they age because their metabolism slows down," explains dietitian Melanie McGrice. “The reason our metabolism slows down is because we tend to lose muscle mass as we age.” Unlike fat, muscle requires energy to maintain it, which means it burns kilojoules. “So, you might be eating the same amount as you were in your younger years, but end up putting on more weight, as a result," says McGrice.
But, like all alcohol, beer packs a big kilojoule hit and can certainly contribute towards abdominal fat. In fact, a man weighing 70kg would need to walk for 35 minutes or run for 15 minutes just to burn off the 570 kilojoules contained in one stubby of full-strength beer. Plus, many people also make unhealthier food choices when they’re drinking alcohol. Think pies, hotdogs or that cheeky kebab on the way home. “Alcohol depresses your inhibitions, so where people might have been prudent with their dietary choices when sober, after a few beers they might think, what the heck, and go for a fatty pie or hamburger,” says sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Dr Trent Watson. “Plus, with hangovers, people feeling unwell look for a positive experience, which often means filling up on fat and sugar because it tastes good.”
Do I need to ‘quit’ beer?
Not if you don’t want to! “Just because you drink a bit of beer doesn’t have to mean you’ll become overweight. But if you drink beer regularly, have a high-fat diet and do no activity, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a beer gut,” says Dr Watson. “The amount of kilojoules you’re getting from your diet, with the addition of beer on top of that, really is more than most people require.”
So, while you don’t need to give up beer completely, it is a good idea to limit how much you drink when you’re trying to lose weight and keep it off. As well as aiming for two alcohol-free days a week, the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol recommend that men drink no more than two standard drinks a day, where one standard drink is a can of mid-strength beer. In comparison, a can of low-strength beer is 0.8 standard drinks, and a can of full-strength beer is 1.4 standard drinks. And as a rule, the lower the alcohol content, the fewer kilojoules a beer contains – while a 375ml stubby of full-strength beer contains around 570 kilojoules, the same volume of light beer contains 400 kilojoules.
Is there an easy way to ‘banish the belly’?
The good news is that losing your beer gut may not be as hard as you think. “The fat around the abdomen can be quite readily changed,” says Dr Nathan Johnson, lecturer in exercise science and physiology at the University of Sydney. “It tends to be easier to lose than other fats around the body.” But like all weight loss, it comes down to burning off more fuel than you’re consuming – which means a combination of reducing your kilojoule intake and increasing how much activity you do.
Pick any physical activity you like, but exercise physiologist Dr Jarrod Meerkin recommends upping the fitness ante. “High-intensity exercise, such as short-duration bursts or sprints, or high-intensity weight training, such as metabolic or circuit training, is the most effective," he says. “Low- to moderate-intensity exercise (think walking or jogging) is also effective – it just requires a significantly longer duration, four to six hours a week as opposed to one to two hours for high-intensity activities such as running." If it’s been a while since you were active or if you’ve experienced an injury in the past, make sure you talk to your doctor to get the all clear, before doing any type of physical activity.