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Zero Belly, Zero Excuses

In an exclusive adaptation from his latest book, "Zero Belly Diet," MEN'S FITNESS Editorial Director David Zinczenko explains how to lose the spare tire, turn off your fat genes and stay lean for life.

Imagine taking off your shirt, looking into the mirror, and seeing zero belly. Not a little belly. Not a tiny bit of belly. Not a spare tire or a gut. Zero belly. A flat, rippled stomach where the softness used to be. Most of us have long abandoned that ideal. We’ve accepted belly fat as an inevitable albatross, a companion for life, just a normal part of being a normal human being. But that’s not true. We don’t have to live that way.

As the nutrition and wellness editor for ABC News and the editorial director of MEN'S FITNESS, I’ve spent my entire career learning about belly fat: where it comes from, what it does to us, and how we can fight back. I’ve literally traveled the globe reporting on fat—from launching fitness and nutrition magazines in Europe and Africa to covering the habits of Olympic athletes in Beijing. So I might just know more about your belly than anyone else on the planet.

And what I know is this: There is no greater threat to you and your family—to your health, your happiness, even your financial future—than the dumpy bit of fat that has climbed up onto your lap and nestled itself against your belly. It’s a torpedo aimed at your torso, a missile fired at your midsection. It is a living, growing organism whose goal is to ruin your life. But you can win this war. That’s the goal. And the Zero Belly Diet is your plan.

I’ve made my career in health and fitness, but I wasn’t always what you’d call healthy or fit. I came of age in the 1980s, just as the obesity crisis started to expand, and I expanded with it. McDonald’s started to ask, “Would you like to supersize that?” and every time I said, “You bet!” By the time I was 14, I had 212 pounds of oily adolescent adiposity on my growing 5'10" frame. 

I knew I looked bad. I knew I felt bad. What I didn’t know was that if I didn’t change, I was headed toward disaster. 

It took a tragedy to wake me up.

At the still-young age of 52, my father passed away from a sudden, massive stroke. Always heavy since the time I was born, he had ballooned into obesity in the 1980s. I was his son. I carried the same “fat genes” that he did. Would this be my fate too?

My father’s death woke me up to the fact that excess weight—especially excess belly fat—is more than just a vanity issue. Belly fat may be the No. 1 cause of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer in America, and it contributes mightily to our epidemics of Alzheimer’s, depression, and even inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. 

Indeed, new studies show that belly fat is utterly different from other types of fat. It evolves out of a different set of stem cells than the fat found in other places on our bodies, its actions triggered by fat-storage genes that get turned on and cranked to high volume by our fast-food, high-stress lifestyles. Once those genes get turned on, visceral fat acts like an invading force, trying to take over our bodies.

Some of us carry a number of genes linked to metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity; others have a lower genetic propensity for these health issues. But once the “on” switch is flipped for our fat genes, we are at risk for weight gain and all the health issues that surround it—and no amount of exercise or calorie restriction is going to reverse that course completely. (That’s why so many people who diet and work out like crazy still can’t lose weight! Eureka!) And the No. 1 trigger for our fat genes is diet—especially a lack of certain nutrients.

In just the last couple of years, we’ve also learned more about belly fat—how it’s formed and how it behaves. As it gains greater purchase inside you, it spits out higher and higher levels of adipokines—a series of more than a hundred biochemical substances that do terrible things to your health. They include such nasty compounds as:

Resistin, a hormone that undermines your body’s ability to metabolize glucose and leads to high blood sugar.

Angiotensinogen, a compound that raises blood pressure. 

Interleukin-6, a chemical associated with arterial inflammation.

Tumor necrosis factor, which is as bad as it sounds—it causes inflammatory issues such as psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and various forms of arthritis.

Visceral fat also increases the amount of estrogen in your body and interferes with the functioning of your liver, meaning your body has a harder time flushing away toxins—including the very toxins that fat is creating! In fact, visceral fat does the same thing to your liver that chronic alcoholism does; a recent study at the Mayo Clinic found that one in 10 cases of liver failure resulting in the need for a liver transplant is now caused by nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH—a newly coined term for liver damage caused by visceral fat.

You can think of having belly fat as being in a state of chronic inflammation: Your body is being irritated and attacked, 24/7, by the substances your belly fat spews out. For some reason, men are much more likely than women to store fat in their midsections, although plenty of women have this “apple shape” as well. And new research is showing that children may be even more vulnerable: Ten percent of children in the United States may already have liver damage caused by visceral fat, according to federal surveys.

This is what visceral fat does. This is the enemy. And it is not fooling around. What was clear to me was this: Belly fat killed my dad. And I was going to find a way to fight back.


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