Beer Belly vs Muffin Top: A Healthy Debate

fit fat TOFI

What’s the difference between a beer belly and a muffin top? No, that’s not the first line of a bad joke. It’s a real (and important) question that I’m planning to answer today. Although both are slang for some extra body bulge, the difference between extra inches on the waist and padding on your backside is actually a lot more critical than you might think. Have you ever noticed that beer bellies are actually hard, rather than cushiony like muffin tops, junk in the trunk, or even thunder thighs? 

Ok, enough with all these euphemisms. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m not a fan of fat shaming — I’ve had my fair share of struggles in the body image department and don’t wish to perpetuate any of the hype that “thin is in.” But the truth is, not all fat is created equal. There’s the kind of fat that makes us a bit softer in certain places, but then there’s this other kind — a more insidious kind — that can be nearly invisible in some people. And because it doesn’t come in the form of a little extra padding, it’s not taken as seriously as it should be. I’m talking about visceral fat — the kind of fat that inhabits organ tissue beneath the outer layers of our bodies; the kind that leads to all sorts of health problems and needs to be addressed far more urgently than junk in the trunk.

Let’s talk TOFI 

TOFI? Is this a new hair product? No. TOFI is an acronym: Thin Outside Fat Inside. I did not come up with this term. Professor Jimmy Bell, head of the molecular imaging group at the Medical Research Council’s centre at Imperial College, London did. It’s in reference to exactly what it sounds like — thin individuals with fat in their internal cavity. The location and type of fat that defines TOFI individuals is of particular concern when it comes to health risks like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In the picture below, you see two cross-sections of human torsos. The white areas are fat. You can see on the left, there’s a thicker layer of fat around the perimeter of the body but there’s not much fat in the center. The opposite is true on the right. The white (fatty) area in the middle is much larger on the right, which means this person has fat deposited in and around the organs. The person on the right might have less “flab” but is actually the less healthy of the two. Individuals with a normal BMI but greater than normal amount of middle body fat (typically the visceral fat that you can’t necessarily see) are considered TOFI.

fit fat TOFI

Image by “ImagingFat” sourced through Creative Commons

What’s visceral fat?

Visceral fat is found in the midsection of the body, and it lives in the organs and internal tissue, rather than on the outside (like love handles or junk in the trunk). Visceral fat is a hard beer belly. While TOFI people almost certainly don’t have a beer belly, they have a miniature version of it right under their tiny tummies, and they possess the same health risks as the person with the beer belly.

This means that they could likely be on their way to Metabolic Syndrome and all the accompanying health challenges that come with it, all the while thinking that their diet of gummy bears and candy corn are doing their bodies good. (If you recognize that movie reference and put it in the comments at the end of this post, you are my new best friend.)

Metabolic Syndrome is a collection of symptoms that tend to lead to Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease if no intervention is undertaken (namely lifestyle change). Symptoms include a large waistline, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, insulin resistance, and high fasting blood sugar. 

While most of those symptoms I just rattled off require blood tests to find out, the one that doesn’t is the waistline measurement. And a good way to know if you’re TOFI — or even FOFI — is to measure your waist AND your hips to find out if the ratio is within healthy guidelines. 

The World Health Organization states that abdominal obesity is defined as a waist-to-hip ratio above 0.90 for males and above 0.85 for females, or a BMI (Body Mass Index) above 30.0.  

TOFI Thin outside fat inside

image sourced through Creative Commons by Mikael Häggström, from original works by SuicideGirls and FatM1ke

Can you be Overweight or Obese and Healthy?

The short answer is yes. Everything has its opposite, right? The flip side of TOFI is FOTI (Fat Outside Thin Inside). It’s possible to have a little extra padding without putting your health at risk — as long as the padding is in the right place. (Not in the middle of your body in and around your organs.)

Rest easy on your big beautiful booty. 

Trim Down the Waistline: Reducing Visceral Fat

Chronic Illnesses like metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are all preventable with behavior change. If you’re worried about visceral fat, what you eat and the quality of the food is just as, if not more important than how much you eat. And the way you live your life day-to-day is actually pretty important too. 

Food

fit fat TOFIWhen it comes to food, mitigating inflammation and insulin spikes with your diet is the best course of action for reducing your risk. What that means is eating a whole food diet rich in alkalizing foods and low in sugar and processed junk. Think organic fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and dairy, organic or wild sources of protein, and healthy fats like coconut oil and avocados.

In fact, if you’re not already diabetic (and are free from liver disease), replacing most (or all) of your cooking oil with coconut oil could actually help you achieve your weight loss goals! Coconut oil consists of medium chain triglycerides which go straight to your liver to either burn as energy or get stored as ketones — compounds that can reduce appetite and stimulate the metabolism. (Ask your doctor before making any dramatic changes.)

Cortisol

As for how we live our lives, this is where the mental/emotional/spiritual piece comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard of that pesky hormone cortisol. If not, think stress. Cortisol is activated when we’re under stress. It’s part of a cascade of effects the body sets off in the stress response, and once we start seeing cortisol in the blood stream, insulin isn’t far behind.

If you haven’t yet made the connection between cortisol, insulin, and middle body weight, start now. 

Here’s how it works: You experience stress, which begins the fight or flight response in the body. Fight or flight shuts down digestion and prepares the body to use its biggest and most important muscle groups (arms and legs) for fighting off or running from life-threatening stress. But for the most part, traffic, screaming children, and work deadlines aren’t life-threatening. Cortisol lingers in the body after the stress subsides, causing increased appetite, increased glucose production, and increased insulin release. The latter two promote fat storage around the midsection.

Relax and Enjoy Life

Sometimes the best way to slim down (specifically in the midsection) is to make big shifts in how much stress we take on and how much sleep we get. Find ways to enjoy your life. Get outside and bask in the sun, swim in a lake, or hug a tree. Bury your feet in the sand. Play with your pet or call your best friend for a walk around the park. Do something to get yourself connected. You might be surprised at what this can accomplish.

fit fat TOFI

Get Started Now

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