“Spare Tire” is diet wake-up call

Originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 15 Mar 2009.

I LOVE FOOD. No, really. I love to eat. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the world.

Fortunately, all my life I have been blessed with being able to eat anything I want. I’ve always been a skinny guy, although when I was younger I hated it.

In reality, it’s a good thing, because I grew up in the South, and as we all know, we like to fry things in the South. Fried chicken. Fried okra. Fried everything! And I fried food. Uncle Lou’s fried chicken is one of my favorites.

My diet has consisted of virtually everything fried for as long as I can remember. And because of that, I’m the guy that most people love to hate. You know, I get those comments like, “Where did all that food go?” or “How do you eat all of that fried food and stay so skinny?”

So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when I noticed something frightening around my waistline: a small (and I emphasize the word “small”) spare tire, a.k.a. “love handles”! I have to tell you I was in a state of catatonic shock.

At first , I wrote this off to the fact that I have been much less active lately (and a little older, too). I’ve always been an active person, but more recently, I’ve been desk-bound. So when I noticed this “inch of pinch,” I decided I needed to get busy again. I started going to the gym, and mind you, the word “gym” was like a foreign language to me.

But I didn’t change my eating habits, not in the least. I can’t tell you the satisfaction of gripping a big, nasty double cheeseburger and squeezing it to the point that the grease was running down to my elbows. Ahh, the life.

Much to my dismay, despite the extra exercise, my weight was not really changing and the pinch was still an inch. And it was bugging me, even as I gleefully cruised through Taco Bell and picked up my six crispy tacos.

So I went to “Googling.” I started out with a simple search about the offending body part, “spare tire around waist,” and retrieved hundreds of pages of data. Only one really stood out, a CNN article entitled “Spare tire doubles the rate of dying even if BMI is OK.” Say what? Dying? That certainly got my attention. I started with the CNN article, and began poring through other documentation from numerous sources. Of course I had no clue what “BMI” stood for. I have since learned it means “Body Mass Index,” basically our amount of body fat as based on height and weight.

What I also learned was that the spare tire alone isn’t the killer. A major contributor, however, is what’s called “visceral fat .” This is the fat that is actually inside the body cavity, deposited between the internal organs in the torso. We commonly refer to this as a “beer belly.”

Fortunately, my own issue is confined mostly to the spare tire, otherwise known as “subcutaneous fat .” This is the layer of fat that is right below the skin. But what I read about visceral fat was alarming.

The study that CNN referenced, originally published by The New England Journal of Medicine, noted

My diet has consisted of virtually everything fried for as long as I can remember.

that people with a build-up of visceral fat have a higher risk of dying during a 10-year period than people who do not have it. For example, just a 2-inch increase in waist circumference raised the risk of mortality by 17 percent in men and 13 percent in women. Scary.

The good news is that we can do something about it. Obviously, exercise is key. Even moderate exercise can stop or reduce accumulation of visceral fat. According to researchers at Duke University Medical Center, exercise equivalent to a 30-minute walk six times a week can prevent accumulation of visceral fat. More intensive exercise can actually reduce it.

But what about my annoying “spare tire”? Well, unfortunately for me and my love of fried foods, everything I have read says that I have to cut down on my fatty food intake and continue my exercise.

As a result, I have found myself reading the labels on everything I eat. You know those big double cheeseburgers that I’ve had a loving relationship with for 30 years? They have 770 calories each, and of that, 430 are from fat! And my beloved fried chicken was almost the same. Quite the wake -up call!

So no matter how hard it’s going to be — and trust me, it’s going to be very hard — I am going to have to keep up my exercise regimen and refrain from the intense and ever-present call of the drive -thru. Wish me luck! Zach Bair is a freelance writer, musician and technology entrepreneur based in Memphis.

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